Food To Suppress (Libi)dough: The Graham Cracker's Odd Origins
Image Credit: PEXELS

WE’VE all encountered foods that have a reputation as aphrodisiacs. But have you heard of food that was meant to serve the exact opposite purpose? This is the story of one such snack, whose beloved status today belies its spartan beginnings. We’re talking about the graham cracker, which is a staple in all kinds of pie crusts, no-bake cakes and cheesecakes, s’mores, and enjoyed by itself in its flavoured forms.

Sometime in the late 1820s, a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, by the name of Reverend Sylvester Graham, was pondering — as men of the collar are wont to — questions of life and morality. Temperance as an ideal was in vogue at the time, but Graham was far ahead of the rest of the puritanical pack in terms of his ideas. 

Graham firmly believed in the edict ‘you are what you eat’. So far, so wholesome, especially where the physical health of the populace was concerned. But this is where it gets less palatable: he theorised that the food that had gained widespread acceptance after the Industrial Revolution — such as factory-made white bread, fat, and most importantly, sugar — was causing significant mental corruption among the masses as well. To be even more specific, he made a connection between these foods — refined flour and sugar — and sexual excesses. 

Now the good Reverend had very firm dictums about what constituted such excess. According to him, sex — only within the sacred bonds of marriage, and solely for the sake of progeny — was to be engaged in no more than once a month. As for self-pleasuring — clearly that was Satan’s scheme to get wayward souls over to his side, so perish the thought! 

Refined flour and sugar weren’t the only foods on Graham’s hitlist. Meat, spices, condiments like mustard and ketchup were all equal opportunity offenders in his view. Consuming these resulted in sexual “overheating” in an individual, which in turn led to “such dire maladies… as pulmonary consumption, spinal diseases, epilepsy, and insanity, as well as such lesser ailments as headaches and indigestion”. As a Snopes article notes, Graham also thought “too much lust could result in the early death of offspring, who would have been conceived from weakened stock”.

The graham cracker arose directly out of these theories. The commonly accepted origin theory — although it has its critics — is that the Reverend himself baked the cracker. (The other school of thought says graham crackers didn’t make an appearance until 30 years *after* they were claimed to be invented, but this might be more a reflection of when cookery books began recognising and including the recipe rather than the actual genesis.) Be that as it may, we do know that Graham proselytised the marvels of this wonder biscuit, which was made with coarse, unrefined and unsifted wheat flour that had been ground at home, salt, and some shortening. This early iteration was probably exactly as dry and unappetising as it sounds. 

The Reverend pushed for the use of graham flour (another eponymous food) in the use of graham bread, apart from the crackers. He himself was known to adhere to a vegetarian diet, and as he preached — shunning the use of alcohol and tobacco, getting plenty of fresh air, bathing regularly — so did he practice. Interestingly, while he advocated the use of graham flour, bread and crackers, he himself never profited from any of these products. 

Of course, while the connection to sexual urges was far-fetched and misguided, Graham was right about the healthfulness of some of the food habits he endorsed. For one, decrying factory-produced white bread that in his day was adulterated with chalk and clay. (He went on to denounce it as “the most miserable trash that can be imagined”.) For another, his principles of a high-fibre diet and restricting sugar intake would find many takers even today.

In the present, graham crackers are made of — guess what — refined flour. They’re also available with toppings like sugar, cream, cheese and honey. The good Reverend would not have approved.