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.

Graham’s ideas could be chalked up to nineteenth-century pseudoscience and quackery, but his reforms made headway in prestigious social and religious circles. Arthur Tappan, the wealthy funder of abolitionism, was a follower of Graham’s methods, as were fellow abolitionists Angelina Grimké and Theodore Dwight Weld. In 1837, Graham teamed up with reform contemporary William A. Alcott, who founded the American Physiological Society (APS), which devoted itself to self-cure through research. While there were only a few hundred official members of the APS and the associated societies around the eastern seaboard, they were disproportionately influential through lecture circuits and in colleges and seminaries. Leaders of the health reform movement found sympathetic ears at Oberlin College, where the most famous evangelist of the age, Charles Grandison Finney, allowed a whole generation of Protestant ministers to be taught Graham-based physiology.

Although Graham died in 1851, his methods got their next big boost in the 1850s, when the Seventh Day Adventists adopted the diet as a core aspect of their practice. As the Adventists began opening water-cure facilities, early versions of the “Graham Cracker”—which were sold at the facilities—became a profitable product. Premised on a Graham-like understanding of elements, the water cure was the first spa in American culture. Like their European brethren, Americans “took the waters” in the late nineteenth century in order to cure illness. These water-cure enthusiasts, bolstered by the Adventists, also ascribed to the Graham diet as part of their treatment. It was John Harvey Kellogg, raised in the heart of the Adventist community, who in 1890 first started manufacturing Graham crackers for the Adventist sanatoriums. Then in 1906, Kellogg began mass-producing cereals based on the Graham ethos of “health foods.” Soon after, as medical historian James C. Whorton has noted, when Progressive Era reforms began the professionalization of health care, aspects of Grahamism—like the emphasis on eating vegetables—were happily applied. Though it was now a known brand, the Graham diet in its truest form became relegated to the small Adventist denomination. Elsewhere it remained a watered-down consumerist good, the “common sense” buried beneath more scientific research in public policy.

THE FOOD MOVEMENT OF the last 40 years still bears the imprint of Grahamism. Ardent vegetarians, Grahamites might have enjoyed the 1971 publication of Diet for a Small Planet, an influential vegetarian handbook. Graham and his disdain for the industrialization of food production, which lacked the “vital powers of nature,” might have lauded Alice Waters’ landmark decision to use fresh, local, organic ingredients in her restaurant. (Never mind that he would have disagreed with Chez Panisse’s first meal of pâté and duck with olives.) Graham’s theology is also the antecedent to the contemporary mantra that food is good because it is healthy, and healthy because it is good. The Slow Food movement, in its manifesto, unwittingly nods to Graham’s preference for moderation and homegrown food: “May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

Did the Grahamites display the moralizing evident in today’s food reformers? Though Graham was happy to moralize to the nation, his followers worried about projecting their morals onto others; they doubted the strict diet could be adopted by the whole nation. In an 1839 issue of The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, editor David Campbell mused that Grahamism was more focused on its members and not on proselytizing, and rightly so. While other moral reform societies tended to ask potential members to make formal pledges—renouncing liquor or slavery—Grahamites could not ask members to give up food. “Health societies aim at the creation of no such moral force . . . no such moral despotism,” Campbell wrote. “They adopt no pledge and associate upon no principle of exclusiveness, nor of hostility—but purely for the purposes of inquiry, research, investigation, and mutual benefit.” As many a devoted Weight Watchers’ member will tell you, what makes diets so hard is that you can’t give up eating altogether. Grahamites, like all reformers, imagined their influence on a larger scale, but the world they imagined redeeming was still limited. They wondered if there was something inherent to eating that gave it no such “moral force” when directed at strangers on the national level.

Will the modern food movement be able to apply its principles more broadly? Already charges of elitism have made activists more open to class concerns and accelerated the movement’s commitment to fighting hunger and poor diets in underserved areas. When she launched her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity in February 2010, Michelle Obama told her audience: “So let’s move to ensure that all our families have access to healthy, affordable food,” by “making a commitment to eliminate food deserts in America.”  (She also noted this was an “ambitious” endeavor, which involved a $400 million investment.) In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes that foodism’s “direct beneficiaries are mostly the relatively privileged and comparatively well-educated—the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods, support farmers’ markets, and patronize restaurants that have ‘executive chefs.’ ” And yet, he goes on to say, “the benefits have trickled down” into the “midrange chain supermarket,” which “today are a gourmet’s paradise.” To reach for perfection is to land slightly better off, at least.

The food movement may reach many, just not in the way purists imagine. As those midrange chains have noticed, marketing healthy food and healthy living has greatly increased its impact nationwide. Already, the organic food industry is an $11 billion business. Even Walmart sells organic. Yet when Pollan looked into Whole Foods, he found a thriving corporation, which serves up “industrial organic” fruits and vegetables that are still “drenched in fossil fuel.” Pollan writes, “At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.” So while the corporate world’s embrace of organic food has opened up new access to nutritious foods for poor and middle class America, it seems doubtful the food movement’s vision for sustainability will be fulfilled by the likes of Walmart or Whole Foods.

Grahamites suffered the same fate. While aspects of their lifestyle remain influential, no more than a few thousand people subscribed to their regimens at the height of their popularity. Instead, it was the mass marketing of Kellogg’s “granula,” made from “graham” flour, that made Grahamism an American institution. John H. Kellogg died a very rich man by translating the logic of Graham and his whole grain diet into the emerging cold cereal industry. By the year 1914, John H. Kellogg was selling 100,000 boxes of bran cereal, increasing his sales to 600,000 in 1916. The Kellogg Company’s eventual refinement of cornflake production marked the transition of health reform from an Adventist preoccupation to a massive industry.

It is perhaps a fitting irony that today Graham’s name is best known for its association with Graham Crackers—the key ingredient, alongside sugary marshmallows and chocolate, in that beloved campfire treat, a s’more. If Grahamism teaches us anything about today’s food reformers—and I think it does—it’s that there are dangers in sermonizing to the undisciplined masses. Ultimately the modern food movement and its progressive champions may find themselves confronted with the same problem. In their zeal, their mission becomes a fad, a commodity to be consumed en masse, no more healthy than the Graham crackers in a s’more. It satisfies our needs in the short-term, but always leaves us wanting more.

Dana Logan is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.