Graham attracted some interest from doctors, and also began to talk about his whole wheat bread instead of bleached white bread. However, "The New York Review was explicit in its rejection of a Grahamite, meatless diet, referring to it as “dietetic charlantanry.”
January 1, 1933
The cholera lectures gained new converts to the cause of meatless living and garnered praise in some circles of the established medical profession. A group of physicians in Maine reported that “we entertain a high sense of our obligations to Mr. Graham for his Lectures on the Science of Human Life, in which the laws of the vital economy have been explained and elucidated by a great variety of original, striking and happy illustrations.” Similarly, John Bell—a Philadelphia medical doctor who later became a harsh critic of Grahamism—reported that Graham “speaks like a man who has earnestly and carefully examined his subject” while claiming to “known of no lecturer or writer out of the profession, who is, in the main, so well informed in physiology.”
A key component of Graham’s meat-free diet was a reevaluation of the bread consumed by Americans to accompany nearly every meal. In the early nineteenth century most bread was baked at home and comprised of corn or rye meal. However, as the decades progressed, cities grew, and men and women joined the industrial workforce, more and more Americans purchased their daily bread from a local baker. Produced in mass batches, this bread differed in composition, often whitened through the process of bolting, which removed the outer casing from grains and with it much of the nutritive value.
The bolting process often utilized chemicals such as chlorine in order to whiten grains. As a result, white bread was less expensive and in greater abundance, particularly with the spread of large farms into western New York and the Midwest that provided cheaper, abundant wheat. The bread was also produced outside of the household. As Americans were shifting from producers to consumers, Sylvester Graham offered a critique of the increasing disconnect between individuals and their food sources.
With a heavy dose of nostalgic yearning, Graham hearkened back to “those blessed days of New England’s prosperity and happiness when our good mothers used to make the family bread.” Bread baked at home, according to Graham, was crafted with care and control over its ingredients, while the wheat used to make bakers’ white bread was inferior, aimed at maximizing profits rather than dietary excellence. These principles led to the development of what became known as Graham bread, “coarse wheaten bread” that was “the least removed from the natural state of food” and “best adapted to fulfill the laws of constitution and relation.”
Throughout his cholera lectures in 1832, Graham labeled bread as “the most important article of artificially prepared food used by civilized man” and warned of “the pernicious effects of superfine flour bread.” Graham pointed to the greedy motives of bakers who “make bread and sell it for the profi ts of the business, and not for the sake of promoting your health.” When it came to bread and diet in general, individuals had a responsibility to regulate their own bodies by taking control over what was ingested. Graham’s attacks on bread offered a harsh critique of the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States, warning against the profit-driven motives of bakers and farmers, looking to “extort from those acres the greatest amount of produce, with the least expense of tillage, and with little or no regard to the quality of that produce in relation to the physiological interests of man.”
Although Graham first advocated for wheat bread as a pulpit minister in New Jersey, broader audiences began to become aware of its existence as his activities gained attention. Frequently the coverage was negative. As early as July 1832, Atkinson’s Casket —a humor magazine published in Philadelphia—mocked Graham bread as indigestible and hard enough to break a window. However, the journal’s use of the term Graham bread without a precise definition illustrates that the product was already known in some circles. One publication described Grahamites as appearing too thin and irrationally inflexible in their dietary ideals. Another pleaded for the “speedy extinction of Grahamism,” an event that “should be witnessed by every lover of mankind.” The New York Mirror labeled Grahamites as being filled with “humbug” and the system as filled with “absurdities[,] . . . perversion and folly.” One medical journal said Graham was “entirely out of his element” in discussing matters of health and driven by “pride and vanity.” Other publications mocked the culinary choices of Grahamites. New York’s Morning Herald described Grahamites as clinging to a “crusty morsel like half starved dogs, and prefer[ing] sawdust bread to fresh, superfine flour.” The author stated that a bachelor friend was lonely not because of inherent personality flaws but rather because of “the awful catastrophe” known as Grahamism. The New England Review described the “first Grahamite” as “the man who fed on husks until he lost all his flesh.” The individual, however, reportedly soon found his way, and “was very glad to make public confession of his folly for the sake of a cut from the falled calf.” The New York Review was explicit in its rejection of a Grahamite, meatless diet, referring to it as “dietetic charlantanry.”