So, what’s been going on in the world of nutrition? Gut Guru Giulia Enders has published her Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, and has sold a million copies in her native Germany. Amazing. And the Shoreditch emporium Cereal Killer has been subjected to a vicious attack by protesters. Daft shop, daft prices, excruciating name, but surely they didn’t deserve this?
It is evidently high time to look back at the work of John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the Corn Flake.
I started by reading T. C. Boyle’s novel The Road to Wellville, a knockabout comedy set in the early years of the 20th century in a fictionalised version of Battle Creek Sanitarium, the health resort run by Kellogg. As usual with Boyle, the novel is rich, lush, over the top - full of strange regimens, weird contraptions, eccentric characters, enemas, and loads of sex. Kellogg is a cranky megalomaniac, given to snappy one-liners. ‘The tongue is the billboard of the bowels.’ ‘We are but lifeguards on the shores of the alimentary canal.’ He’s played in the film of the book by Anthony Hopkins, so you get the idea.
But I couldn’t help wondering about the real Battle Creek Sanitarium (‘Cereal Bowl to the Nation’), the real Kellogg, and having spent a couple of decades eating them for breakfast, about Corn Flakes themselves.
The real Battle Creek Sanitarium seems to have been full of……strange regimens, weird contraptions, eccentric characters, and enemas. (Sex was frowned on.)
The real Kellogg was born in 1852. He trained as a doctor, with a particular interest in science. He believed in a strict regime of nutrition, enemas, exercise, and hydrotherapy - what he called ‘biologic living’. He was an advocate of vegetarianism, particularly of nuts - which he believed would save mankind in the face of decreasing food supplies - grains, legumes and fruit. He believed in abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, tea and coffee, oysters and chocolate. Smoking, said Kellogg, causes lung cancer (an idea that didn’t catch on till the 1960s). Oysters are covered in germs, coffee harms the liver and causes diabetes, tea is the primary cause of insanity. Spices are unhealthy, and vinegar is ‘a poison, not a food’.
Kellogg was obsessed with the bowel, which, ‘poisoned by meat-eating, alcohol, smoking and other pleasures’, was the subject of intense attention at the Sanitarium. Yoghurt enemas were applied five times a day, ‘planting the protective germs where they are most needed and may render most effective service’. The yoghurt replaced the ‘intestinal flora’ of the bowel, creating a squeaky-clean gut. Kellogg claimed that he had managed to cure ‘cancer of the stomach, ulcers, diabetes, schizophrenia, acne, migraine, premature old age’.
‘Is God a man with two arms and legs like me? Does he have eyes, a head? Does he have bowels?’ he asked. ‘Well, I do, and that makes me more wonderful than him.’ So – a cranky megalomaniac, given to snappy one-liners.
Kellogg was, for much of his life, a Seventh Day Adventist, and his ‘biologic living’ was a moral as well as a physical imperative. It was all about not giving in to one’s desires. In fact, his dietary regimes were mainly aimed at reducing sexual stimulation. (He himself, apparently, never had sex.) Masturbation, in particular, was the devil. It caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, ‘dimness of vision’ – and death – ‘such a victim literally dies by his own hand’. One possible cure was circumcision. ‘The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain will have a salutary effect upon the mind’.
Alternatively, the genitals were covered with patented cages, or the ‘patient’ was given electrical shocks. For women, phenol was applied to the clitoris. Ouch.
The Sanitarium was, in fact, full of gadgets of all kinds. For example:
The Electrotherapy Exercise Bed
The Mechanical Horse
The Mechanical Camel
The Kneading Machine (in which mechanically operated mallets pummel the bladder and intestines)
The Colonic Machine (for enemas - gallons of water are shot up the rectum, followed by eight ounces of yoghurt)
The Two-Person Foot Vibrator
The Four-Person Foot Vibrator
The Mechanical Slapping Massage Machine
The Hot Air Bath
The Window Tent for Fresh Air Sleeping
The Battle Creek Vibratory Chair.
Patients included Percy Grainger, Roald Admunsen, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Sarah Bernhardt. Who were all, apparently, enthusiastic about the treatment.
And who all presumably ate Corn Flakes (originally called Granula, then Granola, confusingly enough) for breakfast. Corn Flakes were invented as part of a health regimen to prevent masturbation, the idea being that bland foods would decrease or even prevent excitement and arousal. Grains were cooked, mashed up, forced through rollers to make long sheets of dough, and then baked. Kellogg started a company with his brother William Keith. But Will wanted to add sugar to their product. John Harvey refused. Will started a rival company which became hugely successful; and the brothers were drawn into a lifelong feud.
On his deathbed in 1943, John Harvey wrote Will a seven-page letter. ‘I earnestly desire to make amends for any wrong or injustice of any sort I have done you,’ it started. He gave it to his secretary to post, but she liked Will even less than John Harvey did. She read the letter, put it in her desk, and left it there. John Harvey died soon after, and the two brothers were never reconciled.
Words by Orlando Gough
Hero image: TOAST French tableware