The Right Bread

A Cautionary Musing on Sylvester Graham

Dear Bread People,

I am not the first person to think about the social attitudes we have about our daily bread. The importance of such basic food has put bread in the spotlight for millenia. Aaron Bobrow-Strain wrote a lot about bread ideas in WHITE BREAD: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. His examination of Sylvester Graham is a good overview of 19th century thinking about proper bread; as I try to understand my feelings about baking bread, rereading White Bread helps.

Sylvester Graham was born in 1794 in Connecticut, the seventeenth child of an elderly minister who died when Graham was an infant; his mother was institutionalized for insanity before he was three. Graham was a sickly child, and raised by a nearby farmer. Eventually, he became a Presbyterian minister and, after recovering from more health woes in his 20s, a health crusader. He promoted vegetarianism and unsifted flour; his name became the brand for whole wheat flour, just as Kleenex and Xerox stand in for generic tissues and photocopies. (Contemporary Graham flour, however is not any old whole wheat flour, but a particular milling style.) One of his nicknames was Dr. Bran. 

In 1837, a year of widespread financial panics, he published A TREATISE ON BREAD AND BREAD-MAKING, a strict guide on righteous bread.  The same year he gave a lecture in Boston that caused butchers and bakers, outraged by his condemnation of their professions, to storm the hotel where he was staying. His fans poured lime from the roof onto his detractors, sending them away.

The book cast a negative shadow on “public” bakers, aka professionals, as commerce driven fellows that, in its author's view, couldn’t lend family love to essential food. The polemic cast many other shoulds on bread, setting the terms for the way the wheat was grown, cleaned and ground, fermentation that could be used, and most importantly, WHO could make this vital sustenance.

“If we would have good and wholesome bread, it must be made within the precincts of our own domestic threshold; and by those who skill and care are exercised more with the view to secure our health and happiness, then their own pecuniary interest.” (p 49)

That good and wholesome bread could only be made of “wheat, recently produced by a pure virgin soil,” because he believed that soil that was previously planted to other crops was ill-affected by tillage and crude stable manure rather than properly composted fertilizer. Graham cited historical and anecdotal references to people thriving on brown bread, quoting the testimony of a sea captain as evidence: “I have always found that the coarser my ship bread, the healthier my crew is.” (p 69)

Graham aligned good bread with the success of individuals and of society at large, and decried any household’s reliance on breweries for yeast, stating that homemade yeast was far better; avoiding molasses and minimizing the length of fermentation was advised, too. Only women should make the bread, and never “those who serve us for hire.”

Not being a woman, I don’t think Graham himself ever actually made bread. He had such reverence for quotidian work, exalting mundanity as only someone who has never done something hard daily can manage. In other books and lectures, he promoted abstinence from sex, and his graham cracker recipe was part of his prescription for celibacy in young men. So I can’t imagine him researching his bread ideas right next to the wives and mothers doing the baking he so worshipfully described. In his treatise, some of the voices of good bread are  Mrs. Van Winkle and Mrs. _____, who name the habits that lead to their excellent bread. Maybe he just spoke to these esteemed women politely in parlors about how bread was best made, and observed proper bread baking in his own home. 

What his personal bread life was like this book does not tell. He was married to Sarah Earl, who nursed him back to health after he was very ill, but he does not refer to her. The closest he gets to describing a personal scene is a statement that can’t reflect his experience, since his own mother was not around to furnish the following memory:

“Who that can look back thirty or forty years to those blessed days of New England's prosperity and happiness, when our good mothers used to make the family bread, but can well remember how long and how patiently those excellent matrons stood over their bread troughs kneading and moulding their dough?" (p 92)

In opposition to putting such baking on a pedestal, he finds fault with the travesty of young women getting curious about baking cakes! He urges them instead to take notes on how to make bread, and asserts that breadmaking should be seen as genteel as cake baking. Elevate bread from drudgery to desirable work is the message, and if this, and the entire book naming mothers as the only proper bread bakers, weren’t so rampantly sexist, perhaps I would agree.

“And could wives and mothers fully comprehend the importance of good bread in relation to all the bodily and intellectual and moral interests of their husbands and children, and in relation to the domestic and social and civil welfare of mankind, and to their religious prosperity, both for time and eternity, they would estimate the art and duty of bread-making far, very far more highly than they do now.” (p 106)

What worries me as I read this dogma is my own excitement for fresh flour and whole grain baking. Once, when I was teaching a writing class, a kid asked if I was a preacher; my enthusiasm for talking about pancakes confused her. I get concerned by proxy about the movement to relocalize grain production. Are we as doctrinaire as Sylvester Graham?

I do not want to be weaving another spider web of shoulds, especially upon women. There is no right way that bread should be baked, and there is no ideal flour. I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to use local flour and spend their Saturdays baking. These rituals suit me, and I’m aware of the luxuries of time and money that permit me to enjoy them. 

When I ran a soup pantry and food kitchen, I learned about my privilege. I also got to see the problems of having ideas about the right kinds of food. I was hired to increase the nutrition of the foods we served, and thought I’d be doing a lot of education. But of course, I learned and learned and learned some more, about my expectations, and about the wisdom and tendencies of the people I served. Initially, the preference for soft white bread in the kitchen and pantry made me impatient. Over time, I set aside my preferences and served people what they wanted and needed. The atmosphere in the pantry was noticeably calmer when there was plenty of sliced white bread to go around. I just made sure there was lots of free fresh produce, too. 

Beginning to understand the limits of money and time that restrict food choices was so informative. Context is everything, right? Reading about the circumstances that surrounded Graham’s life, and especially the social dramas of his times, puts his dogma in context. Nothing excuses it, but here are a couple of paragraphs that help explain it.

“For ages, too, breadmaking had played a central role in the system of household production--baked on domestic hearth, from home-grown grain. Yet during these very years, bread itself was becoming just another commercial commodity. The staff of life was removed gradually from household production and coming to be manufactured, marketed, and consumed in the new depersonalized marketplace…From this perspective “Graham bread” was a serious, if symbolic, attempt to come to terms with life in a marketplace society…” Steven Nissenbaum. 1980. Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform. p 5. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut.

“Graham’s dietary and lifestyle recommendations held such wide appeal because they were a timely response to the “market revolution” taking place in the United States during the first third of the nineteenth century. As the young nation urbanized and industrialized, humanist models of civic virtue became increasingly obsolete, and Americans concerned with the effect of the disappearance of the yeoman farmer began to look for alternative models of self-sufficiency. In the domestic guidebooks of the period, the sentimental home was promoted as the new market haven; by practicing frugality and home economy, such guides promised, Americans could hoard enough capital to insulate themselves from the boom and bust cycles threatening self-determination.” Michelle Neely. 2013. Embodied Politics: Antebellum Vegetarianism and the Dietary Economy of Walden,” American Literature, vol 85, No. 1.

Reading these writers, I see parallels with the DIY homesteady tendencies of the early 2000s that caught me up in their charms. The trend to be oh so homemade was another bout of fear of the marketplace. It was an answer to rampant commercialization evident in the dominance of Walmart and the buy-to-be lifestyle. Making was an antidote to a consumerist culture. 

That whole backyard homesteading thing was exhausting, too. I felt obliged to make everything we ate, even though there was no way I could. When blogging about my family, I avoided discussing one of our daily breads: the bags of corn tortillas that became quesadillas many times a week. I was ashamed I couldn’t fit the invisible standards. Instead, I sang love songs about the pancakes that I also made very very often. That excitement wasn’t fake, but I now doubt the family patriotism I felt for canning and freezing everything from the garden.

My earlier enthusiasms for hearth and home are why Slyvester Graham’s moralizing about local flour and mothers baking scares me. Moral imperatives about food cause deep anguish. Our lamenting builds impossible hierarchies, brick walls of heavy obligations. We all feel small twinges of failure daily, noticing where we don’t do what we should. I don’t want bread to be another barrier to feeling okay, let alone a brick we throw at ourselves when we fail to meet expectations.  


So, as we think about bread and profess our delights for the process of making it, let’s take Sylvester Graham’s extremes as a warning against proclaiming any one method or ingredient the BEST. There are so many ways to be nourished by bread, by the love of baking it and by the joy of being fed. And there are so many types of bread to love!

Friday was World Bread Day, and Community Bake Day, and I took the chance to promote the many styles of our daily breads. I invited people to bake Adrian Hale’s Communal Bread, a sourdough loaf that’s family friendly; Bryan Ford’s Roti made from Sourdough Discard; and my own cornbread. I wanted to get beyond sandwich loaves and the European-style hearth baked loaf. Bread is biscuits and flatbreads and cornbread and injera and oatcakes and dense Nordic loaves of rye. It's Roti and naan, and never just one thing to all of us, but always very important to the person baking it and the person wrapped up in the swirl of nourishment and connection that eating and feeding are. I hope you are enjoying some type of bread with the ones most near to you and all those dear to you but remote these days. 

Until next time,