From the August 2002 issue of Chronicles.
“Dad,” the inquisitive youngster is bound to ask, “where do corn flakes come from?” In today’s economy, where farms are something you drive by on your way to Disneyland, the most common answer might be “Kroger” or “the 7-Eleven” instead of “from the farm, son, from cornfields.” The real answer, which you would most certainly refrain from giving to a wide-eyed toddler, is that the Seventh Day Adventists, an American cult, invented breakfast cereal in order that it might purify them for the Second Coming of Jesus by helping them to move their bowels regularly and to keep them from having marital intercourse and masturbating. Further reflection is in order.
America, the great melting pot that has come to resemble more a wastewater treatment facility than a good gumbo, has had a particularly unique recipe for cultural change. First, a real societal problem is identified, caused, in some manner, by the American experience on the frontier (say, public drunkenness and rabblerousing). Next, some sort of dissenter’s heresy is confected, either in the British Isles or on American soil (say, temperance). Then the two are added together by a wild-eyed inventor in the form of a product (say, Welch’s Grape Juice or Coca-Cola). Next, the product is secularized, corporatized, bureaucratized, and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Finally, it is shipped round the world, from most-favored nations such as Red China to Third World countries such as Mexico and India. God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.
Such is the case with corn flakes, the instant breakfast staple found on tables everywhere from Milan to Minsk.
In mid-19th-century America, the great societal problem was dyspepsia, the gastronomical malady that, today, we call “indigestion.” It was, doubtless, true that farmers toiling from predawn to dusk in the fields could eat pork three times daily and live a happy life, until they had the big one at 60 and died behind the plow. In antebellum America, farmers faced something that their ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland had almost never faced: too much food, particularly meat. Hogs, especially, were plentiful and were, more often than not, fried in their own renderings and garnished with their own gravy for three meals every day. Salt pork, bacon, and ham were main courses, with dumplings, pies, and cakes on the side. Those more fortunate also had beef on their tables. Add to that gallons of coffee, tea, and whiskey, and you have the original All-American Meal. Gone were the communities and customs of the Old World—the habits and traditions that not only bound together the culture of the ancestors of early Americans, but kept them, let us say, unbound, as well.
When the sons and daughters of farmers left the countryside for the city, they opted for a sedentary life while retaining their rural diets. These diets were high-fat and vegetable-restricted and required a fair amount of physical labor in order to be digested properly. Town markets and city shops reflected the abundance of the farms, and pork came from the barrel instead of the pen or the smokehouse. To make matters worse, Americans had learned to woof down their dinners at high speed, further complicating digestion. There was, after all, work to be done. No time for conversation. Americans were on the move.
During the Dyspeptic Age, doctors provided no real corrective to these poor health habits, and so this was also the era of the snake-oil salesman, the quack, the great-granddaddy of Professor Harold Hill. Something called “dyspeptic bitters,” castor oil, and other placebos were offered to cure indigestion. Eating fruits and vegetables was frowned upon, and many patients groaned with gout and languished with a lack of energy, the stress of hypertension, and fever and dehydration.
The mid-19th century was also the Era of the Crusading Victorian Woman. The heart religion of the Second Great Awakening had produced a feminist culture that viewed every social ill in terms of a search-and-destroy mission. Drunkenness, laziness, licentiousness, and dyspepsia—real problems resulting from the breakdown of civilization in frontier communities—were blamed on a patriarchal society of booze, pigs, slaves, and sex. These upper-class women, to a man, fought every good fight if they fought one. And, for them, the ultimate expression of all of these societal problems was the denial of the franchise to the female sex.
Ellen White was one such proto-suffragette. Born Ellen Gould in Maine in 1827, she fell under the spell of the apocalyptic teachings of William Miller, one of the many prophets of the burned-over districts of Upstate New York. (Others include Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, and John Humphrey Noyes of the utopian Oneida community.) The Millerites, as they were first called, or the Adventists, as they were later known, were the first to reject the postmillennial vision of America that had been brought to the colonies by the Puritans in exchange for the idea that the events of the Book of Revelation were yet to unfold, a position that came to be known as premillennialism. Miller, calculating the signs of the times, proclaimed 1843 to be the year of the Second Coming of Christ—which came, in 1844, to be known as “the Great Disappointment,” for obvious reasons. Undismayed, young Ellen married an Adventist preacher and began to receive prophetic visions of her own, including a confirmation from the Almighty that Saturday is the day of rest, not Sunday. After being run out of several towns, Mother White and her husband wound up on the frontier, in Battle Creek, Michigan. There, Mother White and her husband began a church that spawned the movement known as “Seventh Day Adventism.”
True Christians, Mother White taught, needed to be purified in order to be ready for the Lord’s return. Americans had become sex-crazed gluttons who were addicted to self-gratification. Those whose feeble intellects were incapable of following the bizarre biblical exegesis of the Seventh Day Adventists were deemed muddle-headed because of sex and greasy, spicy food. In fact, the good Lord told her, food is the cause of it all, for it is greasy meat that strengthens the “animal propensities” in man. Three visits to the pork barrel every day creates a wanton sex fiend bent on gratifying his lusts in any manner available.
A great deal of “health” literature was already available for Mother White to read, then recirculate as her latest vision from the Lord. She read water-cure journals and the writings of the Grahamites. Sylvester Graham, who died in 1851, had made a name for himself by blaming society’s ills on refined flour. Graham believed that, by returning to flour containing bran and by avoiding meat, everything from cholera to “the vice” would be eliminated. Brown flour began to be called “Graham flour,” from which the famous Graham crackers were made. Heretofore, the Grahamites were considered nut-cases, but Ellen White was able to convince her flock that these teachings were the very Word of God.
Under divine direction, Mother White established the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek and patronized a young man named John Harvey Kellogg, who would, upon the completion of his studies in hydrotherapy, electric-shock therapy, and surgery, return to take the helm of the Institute, renaming it the Battle Creek Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, better known among hipster health nuts as “The San.” Kellogg transformed The San into America’s first health resort, combining exercise and diet with apocalyptic theology and odd applications of the latest findings of “science.” According to Scott Bruce’s and Bill Crawford’s Cerealizing of America, by the original Gay 90’s, The San was a “560-foot long, six-story tall modified Italian Renaissance edifice, complete with a solarium, a large gymnasium, half a mile of glassed-in halls, an Acidophilus Milk Bar, and a Palm Garden with banana and rubber trees”?in which patients endured “laughing exercises,” exercise classes, and hours on vibrating chairs. “They bathed endlessly inside and out—with salt baths, steam baths, hot water baths, cold-water baths, showers, douches, fomentations, and a high-powered enema machine that could put fifteen gallons of water through the bowels in a matter of minutes.” Kellogg himself insisted that his assistant administer him an enema after each meal.
Despite this rigor, the real challenge—the real pain of The San—was breakfast. No bacon, no eggs, no fried potatoes, no cheese, no gravy. Nothing but gruel, porridge, milk toast, and boiled rice with syrup. In addition to their unfriendliness to the palate, these dishes were labor intensive in preparation. Dr. Kellogg struggled to create a breakfast food that would be both healthy and easy to prepare. Under the same sort of inspiration as Ellen White, Kellogg recalled a produce he had ingested during his travels among the health-conscious: “Granula,”?the 1863 invention of Dr. James A. Jackson of Dansville, New York, consisted of twice-baked chunks of Graham crackers ground into little bite-sized nuggets that had to be soaked in milk overnight to avoid chipping a tooth. Kellogg then “invented” a breakfast cereal he called “Granula,” consisting of twice-baked Graham crackers. After the inevitable lawsuit, he creatively changed the name to “Granola.”
Still, for Zion’s dyspeptics, these proto-Grape Nuts were too fortified to be enjoyed. Kellogg toiled feverously in his laboratory, hoping to create a breakfast staple that could be used by patients at The San and shipped to former patients around the nation. It was not until 1895 that Dr. Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith (W.K.), after John Harvey awakened from a divine vision, had the idea of running boiled, softened wheat through a dough-rolling machine, then scraping it off with a knife and baking it. Success! The Kelloggs named these ready-to-eat wheat flakes “Granose”—because it sounded scientific—and debuted them at the General Conference of the Seventh Day Adventists in early 1895 at The San. Granose was an instant hit, consumed first by the faithful, then—despite clandestine production efforts at the Sanitas Food Company of the Kelloggs—copied by dozens of imitators all over Battle Creek, most notably by the sometime psychic and former San patient C.W. Post.
The San burned to the ground in 1902 around the same time that Mother White began to believe John Harvey was getting too big for his britches. By then, the Sanitas Company and its neighbors had developed the technology for grinding corn, and were cranking out corn flakes—which tasted better than Granose—24 hours a day. And W.K. Kellogg’s Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now Kellogg’s) is still cranking out cereal. Of course, doing the Lord’s work in America today means pleasing the stockholders, as evidenced by the 2002 Kellogg “mission statement”: “Kellogg is a global company committed to building long-term growth in volume and profit and to enhancing its worldwide leadership position by providing nutritious food products of superior value.” Americans, thanks to cereal, have apparently been cured of wanton lust and dyspepsia, and can now focus on nationbuilding via factory-produced food products. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.