Bread for a Better World

“It is the wife, the mother only—she who loves her husband and her children as woman ought to love, and who rightly perceives the relations between the dietetic habits and physical and moral condition of her loved ones, and justly appreciates the importance of good bread to their physical and moral welfare—she alone it is, who will be ever inspired by that cordial and unremitting affection and solicitude which will excite the vigilance, secure the attention, and prompt the action requisite to success, and essential to the attainment of  that maturity of judgment and skillfulness of operation, which are  the indispensable attributes of a perfect bread-maker.”   

Sylvester Graham, Treatise on Bread and Bread-making, 1837

For modern bakers, the patient, tactile experience of  breadmaking can create an imaginative connection to a supposedly simpler time, nostalgic or utopian, free from the corruption and alienation of modern life. Even commercial bread–rustic, ancient-grained–aims to evoke a sensory experience of gentle, pastoral innocence. Bread connects us to an idealized way of life, long gone or maybe-someday-to-be.

Two hundred years ago, it was the same story.

Early New York

A mostly-pleasant scene from long ago: small-scale, wooden-structured, rope-walked, almost bucolic New York. For the first two hundred or so years of its life, Manhattan was a small town, housed at the far south end of the island. Through the early years of the nineteenth century, you could walk from end to end and side to side with ease, and all around was countryside. A port city, New York had always been cosmopolitan, and full of newcomers, many of them transient; still, for a couple hundred years it was a place you could know and be known.

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, a national market opened fully to New York producers, instantly transforming a modest city into the commercial capital of a rapidly expanding nation. Manhattan’s industrialists scrambled to profit from the exponentially increased market for imports and manufactured goods. Over the course of the century, European immigrants, displaced by famine and political tempest, poured into the city to meet the demands of New York’s commercial expansion. Most would survive (but many would be killed) by providing ultra-cheap labor to fuel the voracious furnace of industrial expansion.

New York’s population increased nearly tenfold between 1800 and 1850, the percentage of foreign-born New Yorkers rising from less than ten percent in 1830 to just under half in 1850. It would be difficult to overstate New Yorkers’ sense, in the mid-nineteenth century, that the city had entered a state of perpetual flux, the present slipping continually into the conceptual space of the past. The generalized faith in the benevolence of progress that had characterized the early nineteenth-century city was exhausted by the disorientation of a endlessly morphing environment; New York’s modern age had begun.

With the dramatic expansion and diversification of the city’s population, public space became more public, less a place where you might see a familiar face or share a common language. Both immigrant and native-born New Yorkers were forced to adjust to living in unwelcome proximity to unpredictable, incomprehensible, highly-stressed strangers.  Under these conditions, the home took on new value as a refuge, both cozy and sacred, from values and conditions created by the tsunami of industrialization, and a zone where personal values, whether traditional or individualistic, could be preserved and transmitted. A powerful aspirational ideal of private life began to emerge, across lines of class and culture. The details may have varied from class to class, but every version included one indispensable requirement: a full-time female presence.

The damage inflicted by industrialization on everything from living conditions to economic parity to the social fabric, along with the social conscience roused in many Americans by the Second Awakening, also created a lively culture of reform that included the Temperance, Workingmen’s, suffrage, and abolition movements, among many others. Sylvester Graham was one of many reform-minded voices in the shape-shifting New York of the 1830s and 1840s. An standout preacher in a competitive market, Graham had been reclaimed from the neglect, misery, and illness of his youth by his wife, who nourished and nursed him to vigorous health. He began his superstar oratorical career in the Temperance movement and moved on, inspired by his own redemption, to a gospel of health.


Grahamism is a kind of relatively moderate, modern Christian asceticism, with an emphasis not on mortification of the flesh, like earlier Christian ascetic regimes, but on building vigorous bodies for a life of moral redemption of society’s many sins. It is based, first, on prohibitions: Graham recommended a vegetarian diet and abstinence from coffee, liquor, and white bread—more or less the diet aspired to by most of the customers in the Whole Foods line today. Like contemporary researchers studying the effects of diet-induced inflammation, Graham posited the prohibited substances  caused a diabolical inflammation of the body’s substance, as well as its lower passions, leading to disease, depravity, deformity, and death. His emphasis on self-healing though rigorous disciple of the body, nutritional and otherwise, had wide appeal in an era when the best most patients could hope for, when it came to medical intervention, was that the treatment wouldn’t kill them faster or more painfully than the disease. The rumor that his adherents had been disproportionately spared from the 1832 cholera epidemic in New York City seemed to demonstrate Graham’s assertion that illness was no act of God, but a failure of personal responsibility (dubious implications noted), and his popularity exploded.


Graham’s vision of ideal nourishment from bread was of a loaf composed of “wheat, recently produced by a pure virgin soil,” baked by a loving and contented female family member. Graham bread embodies the rewards of the always-illusory Jeffersonian ideal of a pastoral nation of small family farms—a response to mass industrialization that is enjoying renewed popularity today.

That unpaid female labor alone should enact the prescribed foodways, lest the family be morally and physiologically compromised, reinforced the contemporary valuation of the domestic sphere as a zone of safety and transmission of treasured values, and also probably reflects the changing nature of labor relations throughout the nineteenth century (reliance on voluntary female breadmaking was a countercultural mainstay repeated in American culture through the commune culture of the 1960s.)  Graham devoted one of the eight chapters of his 1837 Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making to the blunt question: who should make bread? And the answer was, definitively, no profit-mongering commercial baker and no paid domestic servant. The nutritional value of the bread depended, in large part, on its insulation from the sphere of capitalist production. The elevated moral and nutritional value Graham placed on the home production of bread persisted more or less unchallenged until the redefinition of the role of the responsible middle-class housewife as savvy consumer, rather than loving producer, in the early twentieth century.

Graham wasn’t the first American writer to ascribe a moral dimension to bread, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. But during the 1830s and 1840s, he was a controversial celebrity diet guru with tens of thousands of followers whose fervent regard was matched only by his opponents’ fervent disdain—another familiar scenario, as any follower of Dr. Atkins or Dr. Ornish or any one of today’s Paleo, gluten-free, or plant-power messiahs can attest. Anyone can philosophize about the meaning and function of food, but Graham played to packed houses, and inspired scores of vehement op-eds. His message resonated for people who wanted to take vigorous part in the here-and-now, and intended to strengthen themselves by self-determination and purity to resist what turned out to be the pitiless victory of industrialization. May we honor their lofty ideals, and the women who enacted them.

Graham Bread
Though there are several wonderful interpretations of Graham bread out there, including a delicious version at Revolutionary Pie, I love Chef Patterson’s commitment to authenticity, including the fresh yeast, biscuit-style mixing technique, and use of the baking stone to approximate the climate of the wood-fired stove the original would have been baked in. Below Chef Patterson’s version, you’ll find an 1839 version from household-management guru Sarah Josepha Hale, for comparison.

Reproduced verbatim from  Smithsonian Food History, courtesy of Chef Brian Patterson, L’Academie de Cuisine

[2 loaves]
Patterson writes:
All ingredients except the molasses and baking soda should be weighed as measurement.

0.12 ounces fresh cake yeast
8-10 ounces “milk warm” water (about 80°F)
1.5 fluid ounces molasses
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 pounds Hodgson Mills Graham flour (as substitute, use combo of 83% all-purpose flour, 14.5% wheat bran, and 2.5 % wheat germ[1])
¾ to 1 ounce salt

  1. Whisk together the yeast, molasses, water, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Let stand for 1 minute.
  2. Pour 1 pound of the flour onto a clean dry surface. Sprinkle the salt over the flour. Make a large well in the center of the flour.
  3. Pour the wet mixture into the center of the well. Using a large fork or wooden spoon, gradually incorporate the flour into the wet ingredients, starting with the flour around the inner walls of the well closest to the wet ingredients. Incorporate all the first pound of flour into the wet mixture. This will form a sticky mass, so continue gradually adding the rest of the flour to form a dough that is neither sticky nor crumbly. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes to thoroughly hydrate.
  4. Divide the dough into 2 loaves, and roll each loaf into a rectangular shape, about 12 inches by 3 inches. Let the loaves rise again for 30 minutes.
  5. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Set a bread or pizza stone in the oven to preheat, or line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the loaves to the stone or baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes. Let cool before slicing.

Brown/Dyspepsia Bread
Hale, Sarah Josepha. The Good Housekeeper, or, The Way To Live Well and the Be Well While We Live, Obtaining Directions for Choosing and Preparing Food in Regard to Health, Economy, and Taste. Boston, Weeks, Jordan, and Company, 1839

This bread is now best known as “Graham bread”–not that Doctor Graham invented or discovered the manner of its preparation, but that he has been unwearied and successful in recommending it to the public. It is an excellent article of diet for the dyspeptic and the costive, and for most persons of sedentary habits, would be beneficial. It agrees well with children; and, in short, I think it should be used in every family, though not to the exclusion of fine bread. The most difficult point in manufacturing this bread, is to obtain good pure meal. It is said that much of the bread commonly sold as dyspepsia, is made of bran or middlings, from which the fine flour has been separated; and that saw-dust is sometimes mixed with the meal. To be certain that it is good, send good, clean what to the mill, have it ground rather coarsely, and keep the meal in a dry, cool place. Before using it, sift it through a common hair sieve; this will separate the very coarse and harsh particles.

Take six quarts of this wheat meal, one tea-cup of good yeast, and a half tea-cup of molasses, mix these with a pint of milk-warm water and a tea-spoonful of pearlash or saleratus[2] Make a hole in the flour, and stir this mixture in the middle of the meal till it is like batter. Then proceed as with fine flour bread. Make the dough when sufficiently light into four loaves, which will weigh two pounds per loaf when baked. It requires a hotter oven than fine flour bread, and must bake about an hour and a half.

[1] Or, if you’re more like me, somewhere around there.

[2] Both early chemical leaveners, with pearlash (potassium carbonate) being in use closer to the turn of the nineteenth century; saleratus (potassium bicarbonate) is the immediate precursor to the baking soda used in Chef Patterson’s recipe. Since saleratus appeared on the market in 1840, its inclusion indicates that this recipes was probably updated in a later edition of The Good Housekeeper.

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