In this article:
- Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the graham cracker, was an outspoken nutrition advocate who cautioned people to give up meat and bread for their health.
- But the reason why graham crackers were invented was just as much about sexual purity as it was about health.
- That’s right, the original recipe created a sugarless wheat biscuit that was supposed to curb your sexual appetite.
- Nabisco would later tweak the recipe of Graham’s anti-masturbation biscuit to pack it with the sugar and additives he advocated against.
Crunchy, tasty, and with just the right amount of sweetness, graham crackers are well-known, if not quite universally loved all across the globe. Graham crackers are already great on their own but you’ll often find them used as an ingredient for dessert recipes. It’s an integral component of gooey, sugary smores and is sometimes used as a base for cheesecakes.
But despite its close association with desserts and other sweet treats, the reason why graham crackers were invented was about anything but indulgence.
Honestly, if its creator Sylvester Graham knew just how his invention is consumed these days, he’d probably be rolling in his grave. You see, the graham cracker inventor was, for all intents and purposes, a very staunch promoter of clean eating with a radical streak.
Sylvester Graham, the O.G. Health Nut
Sylvester Graham, the guy behind the invention of the graham cracker, was an advocate for wellness and vegetarianism at a time when his health-conscious choices could get you beaten by the public. Seriously.
Graham loudly advocated against eating meat and white bread, portraying these foodstuffs as poison. While he may have been right to an extent, Graham’s campaign against entire classes of food made him the mortal nemesis of butchers and bakers alike, who understandably wanted to protect their livelihoods from the clergyman.
It came as a surprise to absolutely no one that when Sylvester Graham discussed his new-fangled food theories in a hotel in Boston, a mob of angry butchers and bakers stormed in and attacked him.
The incident, which occurred in 1837, was described as having nearly been a riot. Said near-riot eventually ended when Grahamites, Graham’s followers, dropped bags of lime on the furious crowd.
Talk about Food Wars, right?
The crotchety Presbyterian minister’s crusade for health and spiritual enlightenment would soon come to an end. Sylvester Graham eventually died on September 11, 1851, at the age of only 57.
A sharply ironic turn of events, considering that Graham claimed his Grahamite diet could keep people healthy enough to live to 100. The last few years of his life were spent in deteriorating mental and physical health, seeing as he would regularly use opium enemas for treatment.
The inventor of the graham cracker has since faded into relative obscurity but his biscuits are still going strong. Does this mean he won in the end, though? Not really.
The Real Reason Why Graham Crackers Were Invented
Make a wild guess about why graham crackers were invented based on the information you have so far. You probably think, “Oh, well, Graham was a health nut so obviously graham crackers were like old-timey granola bars, right?’.
According to Attitudes toward Sex in Antebellum America by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, graham crackers were invented to stop people from masturbating.
The honey-flavored graham crackers we have today are nothing like their original counterparts. Old-timey graham crackers were intended to be as bland and flavorless as possible to curb people’s hunger and sexual appetite.
Sylvester Graham made his graham crackers with both spiritual deliverance and physical health consciousness in mind. His original graham crackers had no sugar at all and used whole grain wheat germ and bran. This is because he believed that bread in the 19th century caused illnesses.
He wasn’t exactly wrong because…
Gospel Truth in Cracker Fiction
Bread in the Victorian era contained ingredients that were unfit for human consumption.
An episode of Hidden Killers, a BBC historical documentary, revealed how Victorian bakers would adulterate their bread with chalk, iron sulfate, and plaster of Paris, none of which were safe to eat.
The goal was to make bread as white as possible to cater to Victorian consumers’ desire to appear luxurious and prestigious.
In contrast, the humble graham cracker was as pure as possible. Since the biscuit did not contain sugar, heavily processed flour, or even any type of flour whitener, it was arguably the safest baked good you could eat in the 1800s.
Though his diet did little to stop his untimely demise, modern research on nutrition reveals that Sylvester Graham was onto something when he invented the graham cracker.
The higher fiber content of whole-grain bread and flour, the same stuff originally used for making the graham cracker, is now widely acknowledged for its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the modern graham cracker.
An article from the Food Republic explains how we went from eating the bland, hardtack wannabe recipe of the original graham crackers to the indulgent modern recipe for the graham cracker that uses honey, brown sugar, and vanilla extract.
It turns out that it’s a little hard to market an anti-masturbation biscuit to consumers especially when said biscuit was as flavorful as cardboard.
To get some financial use out of Sylvester Graham’s invention, the National Biscuit Company a.k.a Nabisco stepped away from the unflavored batter and tweaked the recipe to be composed of as much as 5%-15% sugar.
In fact, consumers like the super sweet version of the Nabisco graham cracker so much that they were outraged by a recipe change that reduced the sugar content of the biscuit.
Now far from its health-aware origins, the modern-day graham cracker typically uses hydrogenated vegetable oils made from ingredients like soybean and cottonseed.
But a slightly higher risk of diabetes never stopped the human palette.
The graham cracker remains a culturally significant ingredient today in a country you may not expect.
Sylvester Graham’s invention has had a lasting impact on the culinary landscape of the Philippines. Graham crackers were likely first introduced in the Southeast Asian nation during the American occupation, along with the introduction of spaghetti in the late 19th century.
In a country where the majority of households do not own an oven, given its culinary irrelevance, the graham cracker allowed for the invention of a no-bake icebox cake known as, you guessed it, the graham cake.
This simple yet satisfying dessert combines graham crackers, cream, and golden summer mangoes to create what is practically a hyper-simplified tiramisu. If you’d like to give it a try, this recipe from the Food Network is accurate, aside from the vanilla extract.
When you dig in, remember to have a good chuckle about the original reason why graham crackers were invented.
For another strange origin story you’ll probably wish you didn’t know, find out why chainsaws were invented.