GRAINS, LEGUMES, AND NUTS —
edition pages 246-249
"Nuts May Save the Race": The Story of Breakfast Cereals
Apart from breads and pastries, the most common form in which we consume grain is
probably the breakfast cereal, of which we can distinguish two basic types. The first, which
requires cooking in water, has been known since the dawn of civilization; gruel and porridge are
two of its more venerable names. Hot water softens the cell walls, gelatinizes the starch grains,
and produces an edible, digestible, easily prepared, if somewhat tasteless mush. The only
significant improvement brought by the machine age has been a reduction in cooking time, either
by grinding the cereal finely enough that it is quickly cooked through, or by partly precooking it.
Rolled oats are the most common example of this second technique. The grain is ground into a
meal and steamed until some of its starch has been gelatinized (this step also inactivates
troublesome enzymes). The meal is then rolled into flakes and dried back down to about 10%
moisture by weight. The result is a convenient cereal that keeps well and can be cooked in a
minute or two.
The more common breakfast cereal by far in the United States today is completely precooked
and eaten with cold milk. Oddly enough, the industry that has recently come under such fire for
giving children little more than empty calories, a sort of early-morning junk food, began as a
self-consciously "pure" and "scientific" alternative to the destructive diet of turn-of-the century
America. Its story involves a uniquely American mix of eccentric health reformers, fringe
religion, and commercial canniness.
Graham and Granula
In the middle third of the 19th century a vegetarian craze arose in opposition to the diet of salt
beef and pork, hominy, condiments, and alkali-raised white bread that was prevalent at the time.
A pure, plain diet for America was the object, and the issue was not only medical but moral. As
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg put it somewhat later in his
Plain Facts for Old and Young, "A man that
lives on pork, fine-flour bread, rich pies and cakes, and condiments, drinks tea and coffee, and
uses tobacco, might as well try to fly as to be chaste in thought."
The movement's first chief
spokesman was Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia who
denounced white bread as pernicious and extolled whole grain flour, soon to be known as Graham
flour, for its nutritiousness.
One doctor who was influenced by Graham was James C. Jackson, a Dansville, New York,