“Every affection and every disturbance of the stomach influences, in a greater or less degree, every organ and every function of the body,” said the Reverend Sylvester Graham in 1832. A culinary crusader, dietary fanatic, and the 17th child of a 72-year-old Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, Graham was arguably the world’s first biohacker.
Long before calorie counting machines or bulletproof coffee were invented, he was advancing the idea that humans could control their existence by altering their eating habits. But unlike today’s dietary obsessives, it wasn’t just health or longevity, or even efficiency, that Graham and his band of devotees sought. It was a higher state of moral being.
Of all the body’s “functions,” one obsessed Graham more than any other: sex. Appalled by what he saw as the “venereal excess” of 19th century society, he believed men and women should have intercourse just once a month and that masturbation—or “self abuse”—caused diabetes and insanity by inflaming the brain.
His solution? The Graham Diet, a carefully-calibrated eating plan designed to soothe sexual urges and purify the soul.
Heavy, fatty and meaty meals were forbidden. Pepper, salt, and spice were also off limits. “Stimulating and heating substances, high-seasoned food, rich dishes, the free use of flesh… increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs,” wrote Graham.
Instead, he recommended eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains. Milk, eggs, and cheese were to be consumed only in moderation. Coffee and tea were “poisonous.” Butter, a staple of today’s bulletproof coffee-loving biohackers, was to be used sparingly.
This Spartan diet was accompanied by a precise set of instructions. Meals, he advised, should be taken two or three times a day, at six hour intervals, and in small portions. Water—“the only drink that God has made for man”—should be drunk 20-30 minutes beforehand, not while eating. Food must be thoroughly chewed to prevent tooth decay and ease digestion. Moderation was key. Eating to excess was “one of the greatest sources of evil to the human family in civic life”, and part of a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of immoral yearning. A poor diet brought on lust; lust brought on greed.
He singled out one food in particular for criticism: bread. He deplored the methods used by commercial bakers to whiten loaves. The addition of chemicals such as alum, chalk, and copper sulphate represented a corruption of “the most important article of diet which enters into the food of man,” turning it into “the most miserable trash that can be imagined.”
Bread, he believed, should be homemade and wholewheat, its bran content left intact. In 1837, he published a 131-page essay, Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, laying out his precise instructions for the perfect loaf. Wheat must be grown in virgin soil then stored in clean, dry casks. It should be hand-milled and remain un-sieved. Only soft water—ideally filtered— should be used when making it, and the dough must be kneaded thoroughly. After baking, it should be left until absolutely cold. Twenty four hours was the perfect resting time; anything less and he believed the bread might contain alcohol due to yeast fermentation. God forbid.
Like today’s Paleo diet, “clean eating” movement, or any of the other all-encompassing regimes out there, the Graham Diet had its die-hard followers. In the early 1830s, Graham launched himself as a public speaker. He toured the US, giving lectures and charging 25 cents to every person who attended. Tall, good-looking and charismatic, he could draw crowds of up to 2000 a time.
Following an outbreak of Asiatic Cholera, Graham touted his diet as a guaranteed way of avoiding the disease. He wrote off conventional doctors as “licensed quacks, mere pill-giving and bloodletting members of the fraternity,” and advised followers to “avoid medicine and physicians if you value your health.” Later, he would claim his regime cured cancer and consumption.
Fans wrote letters testifying to his diet’s life-changing effects. Graham flour became available in shops, used to make Graham bread, muffins and Graham crackers. In Boston and New York, Graham’s followers established boarding houses serving meals according to his principles. One landlord launched a weekly magazine devoted to his ideas, the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, which ran from 1837-39. Colleges offered students “Grahamite tables.” Oberlin College went fully Grahamite, reportedly firing one unfortunate professor who dared to season his food with pepper.
Not everyone was so enamored. In March 1837, a group of angry butchers and bakers—outraged at the way he denigrated their industries and depleted their custom—blocked him from entering a planned lecture at Boston’s Amory Hall. He delivered it anyway at a hotel around the corner.
It wasn’t the only time Graham’s presence incited violence. Three years earlier, in Portland, Maine, he’d been mobbed for attempting to lecture women on chastity and morality. In fact—not unlike today’s diet gurus—Graham had early as many detractors as fans. They decried his regime as joyless, nicknaming him “Dr. Bran” and the “philosopher of sawdust pudding.” Ralph Waldo Emerson ridiculed him as the “poet of bran and pumpkins.” Oberlin was eventually forced to abandon its Grahamite regime following student protests in 1841.
Ironically, Graham’s own health was pretty poor. He’d suffered consumption as a child, and was plagued by respiratory problems. He went into retirement in the 1840s, rumored to have abandoned his diet (his wife, Sarah, was fond of wine and gin, and regularly ate meat). His behavior became increasingly erratic. There are reports of him roaming the streets near his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, clad in a dressing gown, and being carted to the barber’s in a wheelbarrow. He died in 1851 at age 57.
Still, his legacy lived on, and not just in the sweet Graham crackers the National Biscuit Company were selling by 1931, or the meat-serving restaurant, Sylvester’s, which occupies his former home. It’s unlikely Graham would have thought much of those.
In the 1870s his war on the appetite would be taken up by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. At his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, he prescribed patients—including the former president William Howard Taft, and the inventor Thomas Edison—a Grahamite diet, complimented, supposedly, by yogurt enemas. Kellogg created the Grahamite breakfast, Granola, and the first version of cornflakes, a bland cereal of boiled wheat flakes.
The era also saw the emergence of a new discipline, “scientific cookery” or “domestic science,” which combined Graham’s faith in the redemptive properties of diet with fresh pseudo-scientific theories.
Cooking schools and household manuals began carrying advice for ways in which food could be “civilized.” Vegetables were to be cooked thoroughly, and ideally covered in white sauce. Elegant presentation aided the metabolism by activating the salivary glands. Rice was recommended since it was said to digest quickly. Pork should only be eaten only on a Monday—laundry day— since the hard work being undertaken by the housewife would prepare her stomach for the high levels of fat in the meat.
By the end of the century, the relationship—real or imagined—between virtuous eating and moral betterment had been firmly established in the mainstream. The word “biohacking” may be new, but the idea certainly isn’t.