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The Seriously Unsexy Origins of the Graham Cracker

The Seriously Unsexy Origins of the Graham Cracker
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Graham crackers are wholesome, whole grain and bland as all hell. They’re anything but sexy and that’s no accident. It’s by design.

The story behind them might surprise you. As it goes, a hotheaded New Jersey Presbyterian minister by the name of Rev. Sylvester Graham invented the boring snack staple around 1829. His mission: to save people’s souls from eternal damnation. The idea was to repress their sexual desires, their deepest carnal urges -- mainly the temptation to masturbate -- all with a crunchy, little biscuit. Well, mostly.

We know. You’ll never think of mom’s s’mores the same way again.  

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“Thousands in civic life will, for years, and perhaps as long as they live, eat the most miserable trash that can be imagined, in the form of bread,” Graham wrote in his Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making, “and never seem to think that they can possibly have anything better, not even that it is an evil to eat such vile stuff as they do.”

You see, Graham was adamantly opposed to factory-produced white bread. The “vile stuff,” sometimes filled with chalk and clay in his day, replaced home-baked bread for many amid the peak of the industrial revolution. To fight back, and to push his killjoy religious agenda, Graham introduced the world’s first graham wafer product. It was a dull, unsifted flour “health food” baked by Graham himself. The sugarless wafers were a key component of the zealot's eponymous diet.

Graham’s strict vegetarian food and lifestyle regimen, a radical reflection of the greater reformist movement of the time, shunned sinful indulgences like alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, white bread, spices and meat. Salvation, Graham believed, was the ultimate holy reward for clean eating and living -- and not having sex more than once a month. Sounds like pure bliss, right?


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Apparently it was. So many people bought into the controversial fanatic’s tame, two-meal-a-day diet that the pioneering “food nut” amassed a cult-like following. Thousands became devoted Grahamites. Others, mostly bakers and butchers, hated him enough to attack him in public, and not just verbally.

Whackjob fanatic or not, almost two centuries after his prudish ah-ha moment, we still have staid Sylvester Graham to thank for the graham cracker, the salty-sweet crumbly crusts to our cheesecakes and the sturdy tops and bottoms to our ooey, gooey s’mores.

We wonder what Graham -- who died at only 57, so young for such a supposedly healthy fellow -- would have thought of today’s ubiquitous honey- and sugar-sweetened graham crackers...or of these busty “Mammo-grahams.” They’re sheerly sinful. Aren’t we all?

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Edition: December 2016

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