Graham was chronically ill as a young man, diagnosed with "consumption" (tuberculosis), which interrupted his studies at Amherst College. After one of his illnesses, he married his nurse. As a preacher, he was an advocate of the "temperance" movement. In 1830, while preaching in Pennsylvania against the dangers of drink, he met members of the Vegetarian Bible Christian Church and thereafter became an advocate of vegetarianism. After i839, he withdrew from his public activities to devote himself to developing his system. Like many reformers of his day, Graham associated capitalism with moral decay (Nissenbaum 1980: 48). Responding in part to the advent of preprepared foods, Graham wrote his famous Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making (1837), in which he urged readers to make quality bread at home and eat it fresh. His Graham bread was made primarily with wholewheat and molasses, as opposed to white flour, and it contained neither yeast nor eggs. The ideal food came to be bread. It was plain, unadorned, and true to itself. As Catharine Beecher was to write a decade later of "Nourishing and Unstimulating Food,"
wheat stands at the head, as the most nutritive, safe, and acceptable diet to all classes and in all circumstances. This can be used in the form of bread, every day, through a whole life, without cloying the appetite, and to an extent which can be said of no other food.
(Beecher 1846: 234)
With food, American culture enters into what Amy Kaplan identifies as the "paradox of . . . imperial domesticity"
in which the work of the home "becomes the engine of national expansion" (Kaplan 1998).
Graham was also a staunch advocate of vegetarianism and apparently the first American to link a philosophy of vegetarianism to a physiological argument about health (Harris 1990). Others of his time shared his belief that to kill animals was barbaric and that a vegetarian diet reinforced better elements of human nature, but for Graham it was also medicalized, as he believed vegetarian diets led to longer life.
Graham's advocacy of a pure diet was very much linked to sexual reform. In his 1834 Lecture to Young Men on Chastity his motto is "beware the fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." Human beings, he notes, have "two grand functions . . . that are necessary for his existence . . . The first is NUTRITION; the second is REPRODUCTION" (Graham 1837a: 29). He condemns "self-pollution" as more dangerous even than the "illicit commerce between the sexes" (Graham 1837a: 16) as it "ruins the physical constitution" (1837a: 40). Sex should be treated as he imagines food must be: "when we eat and drink for the purpose of sustaining our bodies in the best condition with the ulterior view of promoting the healthiest and most vigorous state of our intellectual faculties" rather than merely "pandering to our appetites" (Graham 1837a: 60). It is the stomach that "more directly and powerfully fully sympathizes with the genital organs, in all their excitement and affections, than any other organ or portion of the body" (Graham 1837a: 92). Bread and pure foods would cure the ravages of masturbation as well as dampen sexual excess. His eccentric diet prohibited consumption not only of meat, but also of tea, alcohol, spices, and sweets because of their intensifying effects on the sexual drives of men, women, and children alike (Nissenbaum 1980: 34). For Graham, diet was essential. Without dietary reform, no reform or rehabilitation was possible.
In his Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1839), Graham argued for a divine self-awareness of man that led him to first eat of the fruits surrounding him. He rejects the argument of the scientists of his day, such as Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), that man is an omnivorous animal. For Graham, the very anatomy of the human being predisposes him to eating fruits and vegetables. Man is an herbivorous animal, whose teeth and digestive system are predisposed not to eat meat. He rejects, therefore, the common notion of the day that "animal food renders man strong and courageous" while vegetable diet "is ... connected with weakness and cowardice" (Graham 1897: 115). The best of human society in history subsisted on vegetables and fruits—from the Spartans to the Romans—while "Natural Man," such as those humans ranked as on the lowest rung of humanity of the day, the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, eat i5 to 20 pounds of barely cooked flesh a day which leads to their "indolence" (Graham 1897: 150). Modern man must be healthy and be able to work; this is possible only through a meatless diet.
SLG/Angela Willey See also Beecher; Cornaro; Natural Man; Vegetarianism
References and Further Reading
Beecher, Catharine (1846) Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book Designed As a Supplement to the Treatise on Domestic Economy, New York: Harper.
Graham, Sylvester (1837a) Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, 2nd edn, Boston, Mass.: Light & Stearns.
-(1837b) A Treatise on Bread, and Bread-making,
Boston: Light & Stearns.
-(1839) Lectures on the Science of Human Life,
Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon & Webb.
-(1897) The Physiology of Feeding, Consisting of the
Three Lectures on Diet from "the Science of Human Life," London: Ideal Publishing Union.
Harris, Neil (1990) Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in America, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Kaplan, Amy (1998) "Manifest Domesticity," American Literature 70 (3): 581-606.
Nissenbaum, Stephen (1980) Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Roe, D.A. (1986) "History of Promotion of Vegetable Cereal Diets," Journal of Nutrition 116 (7): 1355-63.
Schwartz, Hillel (1986) Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat, New York: Free Press.
Shryock, Richard H. (1931) "Sylvester Graham and the Popular Health Movement, 1830-1870," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 18 (2): 172-83.
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