Special Collections Cooking – Part 3: Kellogg’s Austere Dietary Science

The Special Collections Cooking Series uses recipes and resources from DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives to engage with issues of economics, class, gender, and social changes through American food. In our first week, we cooked Maria Eliza Rundell’s 1823 gooseberry fool recipe and investigated what the increasing mix of cheap and local ingredients with upscale foods in early nineteenth century cookbooks reflected about their readership and growing female consumerism. This week, we’ll explore nineteenth century health food fads through John Harvey Kellogg’s strict dietary regimen.

American cookbooks generally continued to focus on food’s relationship to health into the late nineteenth century. Productivity and temperance, emerging in the post-Revolutionary period as characteristics of an idealized populace, became increasingly important to moral philosophers and doctors. The professionalization of the medical field coincided with a growth of literature investigating health and productivity in the nineteenth century, although often theories about optimal diets and bodily care were more theoretical than research-based. In this environment, many authors advocated specialized diets and care routines they believed would produce a healthy, productive nation free from moral and physical failings.

John Harvey Kellogg developed his theories on diet and health during his upbringing in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and his medical education. In 1876 he became chief administrator of the Adventist-operated Battle Creek Sanitarium, which grew into a popular treatment facility after Kellogg implemented his healthcare routines. Kellogg advocated eating plain food to avoid stimulating sexual desires and physical distemper (arguments drawn in part from those of Sylvester Graham of cracker fame) and presented this most famously in his 1877 Plain Facts for Old and Young. He also presaged current interest in the gut microbiome, believing regular hydrotherapeutic colonics and yogurt enemas, along with a high-fiber diet and fermented foods, promoted digestive bacteria and prevented the spread of toxins. Apparently both the food and purges were a hit, as luminaries including Amelia Earhart, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Henry Ford joined the thousands of sanitarium patients.[1]

Exercises to promote good posture, critical to digestion, p. 641.

In Kellogg’s Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease (1893), he asserts that physical infirmity among American women is on the rise, as are the number of specialized doctors treating feminine ailments (apparently he saw no economic link between the rising number of diagnoses and the growth of the medical field). Kellogg maintains proper healthcare can alleviate many of these ailments and, after detailed descriptions of anatomy, gives advice for raising girls through motherhood. He argues for regular exercise along with greater education for girls to foster more industrious young women, and he regards masturbation, impure language, and dancing among the chief causes of ill health. Kellogg was primarily concerned with women being more productive, within the confines of established gender-roles, in order to pass better mental and physical health to their children, stating a mother “cannot do her daughter greater injury than to allow her to grow up ignorant of household duties or unaccustomed to useful labor” (p. 187).

Kellogg’s insistence upon specific diets and physical routines for women echoed a sentiment, growing in America since the post-Revolutionary decades, that women should be held to higher labor expectations than in the past, limited to expertise within the domestic sphere. This focus related to the perception that women, as managers of home care, were nearly solely responsible for the upbringing of American children. Women’s industrious habits, thought to be perfectible through scientific study, were critical issues for the new nation because both physical and moral characteristics were considered to be heritable.  Thus, it was important for even young girls to begin cultivating a healthy body and mind prior to their childbearing years. Sisters Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe make this outlook clear in the dedication of their 1869 The American Women’s Home to “the women of America, in whose hands rest the destinies of the Republic…” They proceed to describe the ideal way, supported by figures and scientific illustrations, for women to train for the duty of managing a moral, economic Christian household.

Dedication from Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home.

Kellogg accompanies his treatise on female care through various life stages with a description of women’s diseases followed by “Useful Dietetic Recipes” that conform to his strict recommendations for a plain, grain-based diet. Included are mostly simple breads, broths, jellies, and teas considered to be economical and to aid digestion. I chose to build my fortitude by preparing his Graham Breakfast Rolls and Koumyss, a type of fermented milk. In Thursday’s entry, we’ll dive into the difficulties of Kellogg’s home fermentation recipe and taste test his Spartan breakfast recommendations.

[1] Shpritzen, Adam D. The Vegetarian Crusade. P. 140.


Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or archives@depaul.edu.

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