Coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco were discouraged not just for their ill health effects, but for the moral decrepitude they created.

I don’t think too much about the rituals of cold breakfast cereal.  I’d grown up believing that it was a habit practiced since time immemorial-what did Java man’s rice Krispies say to him?  But the truth is that our modern tradition of "a bowlful at breakfast" is a turn of the century fad gone legit.

The cold-cereal pundits have familiar names, of course: Kellogg, Post, Graham.  There were other folks too whose ideas were similarly radical.  The diet that most Americans enjoyed (and which reflected America’s growth as an Industrial Power) was white-flour, processed sugar, meat-and-dairy-centric.  The diet advocated by these early health food pioneers was radically different.  Most emphasized vegetarian, whole-grain foods with plenty of vegetables and fruit.  Exercise was encouraged, as was taking in sun and regular bathing.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Sort of.  Most of these folks also had a fundamentalist streak a mile wide, and advocated all kinds of practices that now sound just, well, weird.

Lots of these folks were pretty severe in their restrictions.  Many were Seventh-Day adventists, whose belief in "natural hygiene" was as emphatic as their consumption of whole foods.  Modern American medicine was shunned for the most part.  They instead practiced techniques that supposedly helped the body heal itself.  Colonics, enemas and starvation diets were prescribed for everything from obesity to hypothermia. 

Above all, Moral health was a central concern.  Coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco were discouraged not just for their ill health effects, but for the moral decrepitude they created.  Celibacy was an important aspect of wellness, and "self-abuse" was vigorously (sometimes violently) discouraged.  A very mild palate was a requirement for a contented mind, but excess flavor let the devil in.  Diets for health promised a clean body inside and out, and a clean mind to boot.  Some early health fanatics were also clearly interested in another kind of clean.  Topics like racial purity and segregation were always in the footnotes, and John Harvey Kellogg was one of the early founders of the American eugenics movement.

But hang on, what happened to breakfast cereal?  I’m not saying that skipping breakfast is one step on the slippery slope to becoming a complete degenerate.  Nor am I saying that Corn Flakes are the food of the Fourth Reich.  But I do think it’s interesting how genius works.  Folks who have good, even radical, ideas that change the way we act and think are sometimes…nutballs.  I like to think Dr Bronner was this kind of dude.  A casual read of his soap bottles will tell you most of what you need to know about the guy.  Bonkers!  But he also invented a brilliant product that is completely organic and entirely recyclable, and revolutionized the soap making industry in the process.

When I start to wonder if modern food movements like the Hundred Mile Diet aren’t just a little off the edge of sane, I like to think of people like Dr Bronner.  Or Jethro Kloss, or Rudolph Steiner, or even Alice Waters.  Sometimes it takes a little crazy to make things go.

2 comments on “Cerealized

  1. Have you read Cryptonomicon? Neal Stephenson does a several page long digression about the proper way to eat Cap’n Crunch. Truly amazing.

  2. Mmm, nope. Never read it. But I do remember that Jen G. had a trunk full of Capn Crunch in her car. The roof of my mouth was never the same.

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