Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Bread and Nutter

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Bread and Nutter

Article excerpt

A new heaven and a new earth; a new year and a new diet. In this week of sudden and short-lived faith in seaweed fasts and nutritional gurus, I thought it was worth mentioning the father of all modern diet crazes, the health reformer Sylvester Graham (1794-1851).

An evangelical New England preacher (and one of 17 children), Sylvester Graham turned in his thirties from the Gospel of Christ to the gospel of fibre. He was the original American health nut. Graham influenced most of the quack therapies of the last century, from veganism to phrenology to breakfast cereal. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was "the prophet of bran bread and pumpkins". Thousands of Americans attended his lectures and bought his books in the 1830s and 1840s.

The "Graham system", as he liked to call it, was based on the French vitalist school of medicine. Nutrition had moral as well as physical qualities and any desire for food, except for stark hunger, was depraved. The essence of Graham's philosophy was therefore minimal consumption of food and minimal sexual expenditure. Gluttony was, like sexual profligacy, the debilitating expression of an unhealthy urge. For Graham, dieting meant more than half-heartedly munching celery or going without the odd chocolate bar. It meant conducting an out-and-out war on debauchery in all its forms (and Graham saw debauchery everywhere).

In order to avoid "stimulation", Graham outlawed all spices - including pepper and salt - as well as alcohol, tobacco and opium. Butter, cream and - bizarrely - soup were also pernicious because they didn't offer enough "bulk" for their calories. It is ironic that the only living reminder of Graham - the Graham cracker - is now used as the base for creamy, calorific and thoroughly debauched cheesecakes.

The devil's own food for Graham was, however, not cheesecake but innocent-looking white bread, which epitomised the evils of modern life at every stage of its production and consumption. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.