In the early 19th century many Americans had fairly wretched meals at home. No doubt some fared better but the historical record is full of spoiled meat, rancid butter and fats, sour bread, and rotting fruit. Diets were heavy with meats, fried food, and pastries, but few fresh fruits or vegetables. Strong condiments were used to hide bad tastes. Heavy drinking was common as was “dyspepsia” (indigestion).
In this context, the dietary reforms advocated by Sylvester Graham in the 1830s seem somewhat less extreme than they are often portrayed. A graduate of Amherst College and a Presbyterian minister, he began his career at a church in New Jersey but soon left to take a job with a temperance organization. Upon expanding his belief that drinking was morally and physically unhealthy by including foods and non-alcoholic beverages that should also be avoided, he went on the circuit as an independent lecturer.
Hoping to curb “unnatural appetites”(yes, of all kinds), Graham identified foods that should not be eaten because they were overstimulating. In addition to alcohol, they were coffee, black and green tea, and condiments such as pepper and mustard. He also targeted all meat and foods that were indigestible, among them raw cucumbers and radishes, gravies, melted butter, pastry, and cakes. He believed the perfect consumables were bread and water, assuming the bread was unbuttered, made of whole wheat flour, and baked by a female family member, not by a servant or commercial baker.
Graham was disliked for being overbearing and ridiculed as a scientific fraud, but his lectures and books nonetheless won fervent disciples, including a number of well-known abolitionists. A few of his followers started boarding houses for “Grahamites.” So far I have found three in New York City, two in Boston, and one in Rochester NY in the 1830s and 1840s.
Like all boarding houses, Graham houses often operated as small hotels, with some guests staying for months, maybe years, but also transients who might be there for only a couple of days. Some guests only ate at the house, either regularly or for a single meal. The houses were small and could not accommodate many diners; certainly they were not full-scale restaurants, yet they were public eating places of a sort.
Graham boarding houses ascribed to Graham’s scientific system of living. Though mostly focused on diet, it also emphasized taking daily cold showers and sleeping on straw mattresses rather than feather beds. Meals – consisting of no more than three items — were to be eaten six hours apart at the same precise time every day. A sample Graham diet for one of the boarding houses was advertised in the New York Tribune in 1843 as follows:
Monday – Pea soup, vegetables, fruit and plum pudding.
Tuesday – Baked peas, vegetables, fruit and apple custard.
Wednesday – Vegetable soup, rice and prune pie.
Thursday – Vegetables, boiled bread pudding, cream and fruit.
Friday – Vegetables, fruit, pumpkin or potato pie.
Saturday – Bean soup, vegetables, rice or sweet potato custard.
Sunday – Baked beans, Yankee bread, cream pie and fruit.
The sweet items listed above would have used a small amount of molasses rather than sugar. No butter or lard was used in baked desserts. All dishes were served warm, not hot, without seasonings other than a bit of salt. A recipe for pea soup was given by Asenath Nicholson, founder of the Graham Boarding House on Beekman Street in New York City, and author of Nature’s Own Book [frontispiece at top]. For pea soup, she wrote, “Boil [peas] till beginning to be soft, with a little pearlash [to reduce acid content] – then change the water, and when well cooked, add a little thickening of flour.” She gave two recipes for “coffee,” one made of burnt bread, the other of potatoes.
Nicholson also codified other food rules for Graham boarding houses. Mashed potatoes were out because they did not involve chewing. Stale bread, on the other hand, was desirable because it did require chewing. Pastry was “an abomination.” Warm bread and buckwheat pancakes were “both highly injurious.” Butter was “at best . . . a questionable article.”
The house that Graham and his family lived in is in Northampton MA [pictured here as it looks today] and since 1984 has been a popular restaurant open for breakfast and lunch. Looking over its current menu, I note very few things Graham would permit on his table. It’s likely that only one dish would meet his approval, though it might violate the rule against too many heterogeneous foods in the same meal:
Veggies, Fruits and Nuts Salad – A large salad with tomato, red onion, green peppers, corn, sunflower seeds, candied walnuts, fresh apple slices and dried cranberries… 12.00
I’m pretty sure he would order the red onion removed and certainly would not like the choice of dressings, especially Honey Mustard. Please!
[below: pitchers of coffee at Sylvester’s Restaurant today]
© Jan Whitaker, 2016