Like many other veggies, I’m sure, I’m often asked why I’m vegetarian (more on the ubiquity of this question in a post to come) and then, in amazement, if I ever miss the taste of meat. I come from a family of hearty steak-and-potato meat-eaters, the kind for whom meat IS the meal. My grandpa lost all his teeth in middle-age to some kind of disease but continued to gum on steak and chicken well into his golden years. Even today when I pass by KFC or Lee’s Chicken crematoriums, I can’t help but be reminded of Sunday dinners after church with my grandparents and a bucket of the colonel’s finest. A love of a good steak dinner was one of the few things beyond DNA that my mother and I have ever shared. It is no coincidence that the Atkin’s diet was the first diet I ever saw “success” with.
The fact that supermarket freezer shelves are lined with woefully inadequate meat substitutes speaks to the wide flavor appeal of meat. While I admit to missing the taste of meat, chiefly tuna fish, crab legs and my grandma’s skillet-fried chicken, my ethics always trumps my taste buds. I’ve heard of veggies doing amazing things with tofu and seiten, but as it so happens, both Brandon and I also happen to be tragically incompetent in the kitchen with no inclination in learning the complex mysteries of bean curd. Fortunately for us, there’s Morningstar Farms, a Kellogg-owned brand of faux meat substitutes ranging from fake sausage, veggie burgers and hot dogs and stringy chicken.
Most of us know Kelloggs for its line of sugary-sweet cereals immortalized by iconic spokescartoons Snap, Crackle and Pop, but few of us know about one-half of Kellogg’s namesake, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a committed vegetarian and influential American physician and nutritionist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the course of writing the Big Paper, I discovered that nearly two decades before the birth of the modern day Kellogg Co., J. H. Kellogg was already experimenting with meat-free substitutes. The cynic in me thought, “Heh, wouldn’t it be ironic if the Kellogg Co. owned some kind of meat brand today,” but instead, I found it to be the owner of the largest vegetarian food producer in the United States (and to produce no apparent meat products). For this, Kellogg is the first to be profiled in a new semi-regular series I’m oh, so creatively calling “Food History Blogging.“
Kellogg is an interesting figure and not just because he helped spawn a multi-billion industry still bearing his surname. He’s considered by many to be the father of the health food industry we all know and love to hate, and one of the most influential crusaders of the early twentieth century vegetarianism movement (Vegetarianism in America had its first wave in the 1830s and 1840s, but enjoyed a “golden period” in the years 1900 – 1930). After receiving his MD degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical Collegee 1875, then recognized as the nation’s leading medical school, Kellogg returned to his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich. and became physician-in-chief of what he later renamed the Battle Creek Sanitarium (sanitarium = a kind of wellness center). Like many a moral purist of his day, the dour Kellogg was a teetotaler who promoted abstinence from smoking and masturbation — he recommended circumcision sans anethesia for dirty little masturbing boys and the application of pure carbolic acid on the clitorises of their equally filthy female peers (!!!). Kellogg, a Seventh Day Adventist and all-around fun guy, also promoted a meat free diet both for health and for the popular medical notion that meat-eating caused sexual stimulation. One of the prevailing reasons why iron-deficient, anemic girls in the Victorian era ate very little meat is ascribed to myths held by doctors and patients that meat stimulated sexual development and activity, and in girls, could even lead to nymphomania — the horrors!
There seems to be a debate about the expertise of Kellogg and if he was, perhaps, just as flaky as the food he’d later co-invent with brother Will. In his exhaustive food histories, Harvey Levenstein dimisses Kellogg’s “zany sanitarium” and calls his vegetarian prescriptions “hokum.” But others, such as social historians Michael and Karen Iacobbo, testify to his fame as a skilled surgeon and reputable physician. Keep in mind that history is often written by dominant groups. I know a professor and historian of Ulysses S. Grant who says that the reason Grant has such a bad rap today is because racist historians in the early 1900s painted him as a corrupt, inefficient hack of a president. The fact that 1.5 million people turned out for the funeral of the same drunken, scandal-ridden past president suggests he might be on to something, just as the fact that Kellogg counted among patients William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, John D. Rockefeller, J.C. Penny, Montgomery Ward, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and George Bernard Shaw suggest that he couldn’t have been considered that much of a quack. At its height, the sanitarium received more than 7,000 guests a year and employed more than 1,000. Kellogg also performed more than 22,000 operations in his 67-year career with a very low fatality rate — he never took a fee for these services and instead invested it all back into the sanitarium, which, as you’ll read, probably wasn’t the brightest of ideas.
Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in the 1870s to produce granola, whole-grain cereals, coffee substitutes (coffee was also bad, by purist standards) and graham and other types of crackers. Between 1895 and 1905, more than 100 meat-free health foods had been produced by the company, including an early meat substitute called Protose. In 1889, Kellogg formed the Sanitas Nut Food Company, whose product line boasted several nut-based meat substitutes: Nuttose was largely made from nuts and had the consistency of cream cheese, while Nuttelene, another nut-based food, was billed as a “delicate white meat as dainty and juicy as the breast of a spring chicken.” Despite their decidedly unappetizing names, demand for the products grew through the 1890s and Kellogg began shipping them to restaurants and health food stores.
John Harvey, left, and Will Keith Kellogg
It wasn’t until a patient showed Kellogg little wheat biscuits she had been sent for digestive trouble that Battle Creek took its first step to becoming the “Breakfast Food Capital of the World.” The wheat biscuits were being peddled by Henry Perky, a Denver man who called his concoction “Shredded Wheat.” Although Kellogg said they were “like eating a whisk broom,” he saw potential for a ready-to-eat breakfast food and set about creating his own version. It was in 1894 while ripping off experimenting with shredded wheat cereal that Kellogg developed and patented America’s first flaked cereal he called Granose Flakes. Younger brother Will Keith Kellogg did much of the work in developing, producing and marketing this and the first corn flakes cereal they created three years later. A bitter feud soon developed between the two brothers: W.K. knew what would really make cereals sell is to add sugar to them; J.H. refused to sully his pure whole-grain, but tasteless creation, so W.K. formed his own plant in 1906 calling it the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company and using the word “Kellogg’s” as a brand name. Many unsuccessful court battles over the use of the name later, J.H. changed the name of his company to the Battle Creek Food Company.
Coincidentally, the sanitarium at the time had a patient by the name of C. W. Post, an overworked inventor who came to the sanitarium to restore his health. Although he stayed nine month and absorbed the good doctor’s theories, Post did not get well — in fact, he claimed the staff had given him up to die. Post suggested to Kellogg that they collaborate together on a health coffee similar to that served at the sanitarium. When Kellogg flatly refused, the miffed Post went on to set up his own shop in Battle Creek, developing Postum coffee substitute, Grape Nuts breakfast cereal, and later Post Toasties. By 1900, he had become a multi-millionaire. Oops.
Kellogg’s luck didn’t get any better from there. The sanitarium burned down and lost its money. The Adventists, who funded the hospital, excommunicated Kellogg and severed ties with the facility. The Great Depression marked the deathknell of the business and it went into receivership in 1933. And in the final insult to injury: When it was incorporated in 1906, the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company had been placed under W.K.’s management, but J.H. was the major shareholder. The doctor, however, had foolishly distributed part of his stock among doctors at the sanitarium. When J.H. went away to Europe to visit Pavlov, W.K. bought up the stock until he owned the majority. He promptly replaced the box’s picture of the sanitarium with a stamp of his signature, renamed the business, and went on to become rich leaving J.H. to die in obscurity.