Canvas bag full of vegetables

(Jeffrey Hamilton/Thinkstock)

Leaving the farmers’ market every Saturday, I am filled with self-satisfaction. Not only have I managed to accomplish some food shopping (a tricky feat for busy people), but I also imagine that I have participated in the political project of “the food movement.” In this fantasy, the First Lady, Michael Pollan, and Mark Bittman regard me with approval. This zeal fades quickly as the fruit flies come to feast on the tomatoes that I never seem to eat fast enough, and as I cave after a long day and dig into an ice-cream bar made with unpronounceable ingredients. Guilt soon sets in. Again, I have failed to live up to the high standards of today’s food reformers, where we eat simply, locally, and organically. All the time.

Of course, not all food reformers are calling for the same thing. As Pollan has pointed out, the food movement is “a big, lumpy tent.” There are hosts of activists: among them the foodies (who enjoy eating’s aesthetic values); the sustainability advocates (who monitor animal welfare and agriculture’s impact on ecosystems); and the health reformers (who raise awareness about obesity and inner-city food deserts). Since their resurgence in the 1970s, these diverse factions have conspired toward a common goal: telling us how to eat better, and making us feel worse when we don’t.

It’s a noble and needed cause, but like any crusade, it can get a little preachy. Writing in The Atlantic last year, B.R. Myers lamented foodism’s faux piety, one where “to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself,” all while assembling special dinner parties with overpriced ingredients, meant to model morality for the masses. I tend to agree; while Myers’ beef is with the foodies in particular, there is something “holier than thou” about the entire food movement. But on one historical point, Myers gets it wrong. He posits that foodism’s self-righteousness is a newfound affectation. “For the first time in the history of their community,” he writes, gourmets are left “feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street.” In fact, the American food movement has a long, sanctimonious history—and one with surprisingly religious roots.

IF WE TRACE THE lineage of the food movement, the grandfather of health food would be the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, whose “Graham Diet” was first codified in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-making in 1837. (Among the volume’s puritanical aphorisms: “[Bread] should be baked in such a way that it will … require and secure a full exercise of the teeth in mastication.”) Graham was among the nineteenth-century reformers who hoped for a nation devoid of all sorts of immorality, from slavery and alcohol to lesser vices like white flour and sugar. Abolitionists and health reformers alike found the key to national reform in religion. The personal decision to follow Jesus Christ—and give up one’s vices—was the starting point to persuade fellow citizens to join the cause.

Although he was an ordained minister, Graham never had his own congregation. Instead, he earned his income and notoriety on the temperance lecture circuit during the 1820s, where he argued alcohol was not merely immoral but unwholesome, part of an unhealthy class of substances called “stimulants” that wreaked havoc on the body. In a bold theological move, he believed alcohol, coffee, tea, sugar, meat, and refined grains were all unhealthy because of their distance from the “organic vitality” of nature. (Today we might hear the same argument about processed foods.) Graham prohibited eating meat, not because animals were sacred beings or should be treated humanely, but because meat was a “stimulant” and overtaxed the body. While vegetables, water, and whole grains gave people more “life,” stimulants—born of the new industrial mode of food production—leeched people’s vitality, making them ill and sinful. Sex also happened to diminish one’s energy, according to the Reverend, who maintained a lifelong crusade against masturbation.

Graham had his critics; as a Boston paper described him: “A greater humbug or a more disgusting writer never lived.” And Graham could be equally caustic in his criticisms of those who fell short of his high standards. Frustrated with a woman who thought drinking tea relieved her headaches—which Graham believed actually exacerbated the problem—he expounded in a letter: “[W]hat are her feeling and experience worth … to the laws of life and health? I answer, not a farthing! Nay, indeed! They are worse than nothing!”

Starting in 1835, Graham’s followers created societies and boarding houses for young people who had recently moved to booming cities like New York and Boston, taking jobs as clerks and skilled craftsmen and living far away from their rural families. (Think of them as the Brooklyn yuppies of yesteryear.) The boarding houses became places where the most serious Graham followers, dubbed the Grahamites, experimented with the most stringent versions of the diet. They ate whole-wheat crackers and other baked goods made with minimal sugar and fat, along with fruits and vegetables, all served with water. At the dinner table, tenants were encouraged to chastise one another for laxity.