Written by Sam Marks
Most people know graham crackers as a type of cracker or biscuit associated with s’mores. They have a slight honey or cinnamon flavor but are fairly bland compared to other treats of their type. Despite them being an essential ingredient in s’mores, notably one of the sweetest desserts, graham crackers were originally made to minimize as much pleasure and sensation as possible. There creation is directly linked to the early vegetarian movements in the United States.
Graham Crackers were inspired by the preachings of Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister who is known as the “Father of Vegetarianism” in the US. In the 1830s, Graham traveled as a preacher throughout the US for the temperance movement, which advocated for the complete abstinence from drinking alcohol. Doctors and ministers were prominent proponents of temperance and campaigned for healthier dietary practices. Temperance supporters also aimed to minimize pleasurable sensation, believing that stimulating things, like alcohol, would corrupt humans and cause harm.
Graham concluded that meat was just as much a danger to dietary health as alcohol and believed that what people ate had enormous influence on their health. Temperance picked up steam throughout the 1830s due to American fears of the second cholera pandemic in Europe, which lasted from 1826 to 1837. Public fears ignited Graham’s popularity throughout the country and gave him a significant following under “Grahamism.” Graham preached that people should only eat plant-based foods, much as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, and prioritize nutrition over savories.
To make sure a vegetarian diet was accessible to life on the American Frontier, followers of Graham created graham flour, a coarser type of whole grain flour. The recipe for graham crackers soon emerged as one of the most common uses for graham flour. They were compact, easy to make, and readily available for long journeys out into the wilderness. Graham also preached against the use of spices and seasonings, giving graham crackers their signature lack of taste and blandness.
Grahamism became more mainstream over time, and throughout the 1830s Graham boarding-houses were established to create a more controlled environment for vegetarians to live in. Officials at Oberlin College in Ohio even made the Grahamist diet mandatory among its staff and students in the 1840/1841 academic year. The practice was overturned due to unpopularity among the student base.
In 1898, when the National Biscuit Company started making them, graham crackers have been mass-produced and a staple in the American cuisine. Aside from s’mores, they are also used in moon pies, icebox cakes, and cheesecake. Graham himself never invented nor profited from any of the products that he is named after, but he would probably be disappointed to know that his namesake is almost entirely associated with desserts and sweets.
Blanchfield, Deidre S., ed. 1998. How Products Are Made: An Illustrated Guide to Product Manufacturing. Gale Research.
Cole, Edith Walters. 1967. “Sylvester P. Graham, ‘Father of the Graham Cracker.’” The Southern Speech Journal 32 (3): 206–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/10417946709371875.
Iacobbo, Karen, and Michael Iacobbo. 2004. Vegetarian America: A History. Illustrated edition. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers Inc.
Kaplan, Maxine. 2004. “College Once Banned Meat.” The Oberlin Review, March 19, 2004. https://www2.oberlin.edu/stupub/ocreview/2004/3/19/news/article7.html.
Lewis, Dan. n.d. “The Curious History of Graham Crackers and Corn Flakes – Now I Know.” Accessed October 2, 2022. https://nowiknow.com/the-curious-history-of-graham-crackers-and-corn-flakes/.
Shprintzen. 2015. The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921. Reprint edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Smith, Andrew. 2011. Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. Illustrated edition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. 2009. “Sylvester Graham’s Imperial Dietetics.” Gastronomica 9 (1): 50–60. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2009.9.1.50.