Natural Food to Eat When Changing the World

Mushrooms in shredded wheat biscuit baskets

It’s that time of year when family favorites grace dinner tables and fill pie plates. As our recent exploration of Food Studies shows, menus and cookbooks can provide fascinating insights into how food both reflects and shapes culture. We teamed up with History of Science and CHE grad Melissa Charenko to ask four historians who work at the intersection of food and history to choose a recipe from their research and tell us what it reveals about various ingredients, social concerns, and tastes. We’ll start with two today that link food with the ability to withstand physical, moral, and social degradation. Travis Weisse introduces us to the blended fruit treat, “Nutcracker Sweet,” from the health food movement for African Americans in the 1970s. Michael Kideckel questions how vegetarian “natural” foods of the 1890s came to include beef stuffed with Shredded Wheat. Next week, Edge Effects will give you two more recipes to chew on.   

Smoothies for Civil Rights

“Nutcracker Sweet” from Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ with Mother Nature (1973):

Juice up, in an electric or manually operated juicer, 3 pears, 3 apples, 6 oranges, 1 lemon, 2 grapefruits, about a pound of grapes (green, red, and purple mixed) and a carton of strawberries. Remove from carton, of course. Mix the juices thoroughly in the blender. Get a large pitcher or some other large container. In the container place ¼ pound sesame seeds, ¼ pound sunflower seeds, ¼ pound almonds. Also put in some unsulfured dried fruit…. Pour the juice mixture over the nuts and dried fruit and let stand in the refrigerator overnight. At least several hours. Then put the whole business into the blender once again and blend it at high speed. Shut the blender off and you’ve got your nutcracker sweet. Sit down, relax, play a little Tchaikovsky and enjoy!

<a href="" target="_blank">A cookbook</a> that promises an introduction to natural foods even for those not ready to replace steaks with soy.

A cookbook that promises an introduction to natural foods even for those not ready to replace steaks with soy.

Though it sounds innocuous, perhaps even quaint, this recipe was meant to nourish righteous indignation toward the unfair treatment of American minorities. Dick Gregory, the famed comedian and controversial civil rights activist, says this frozen concoction is “­guaranteed to provide quick energy and pure nourishment to keep up your strength during human rights demonstrations, extended boycotts, and such.” For Gregory, the political, physical, and spiritual plight of African Americans were intertwined. Bad health, characterized by the “bloated stomachs, the bald heads, the varicose veins, the swollen ankles… [and] high blood pressure, heart trouble, nervous tension” that he witnessed in his Chicago community, was a result of racial health disparities. The soul food diet that was rising in popularity in black communities across the country made these problems worse.

To combat what he saw as an epidemic of greasy meat and overcooked vegetables, Gregory advocated a strictly fruitarian diet, made exclusively of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—mostly juiced and punctuated by fasting. His diet resonated with his peaceful, non-violent politics by being cruelty free and encouraging safe fasting protests à la Gandhi. Gregory’s evidence for the healthfulness of fruitarianism was eclectic, containing appeals to contemporary scientific research in evolutionary digestive physiology and biochemistry, homeopathic and herbal doctrines, as well as biblical scripture and back-to-nature idealism. Not only will this Nutcracker Sweet help cure the medical, spiritual, and political symptoms within the black body from its conformation to white modernism, Gregory also says, with his signature debonair humor, that it will “put the ice cream man out of business once you’ve tasted it.”

Shredded Wheat, a Natural Treat with Meat

“Dressed Beef Steak,” from Henry Perky’s The Vital Question (1898):

One small onion, 1 tablespoon butter, 1/8 teaspoon herb dressing, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 2/3 teaspoon marjoram, 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 1/2 cups boiling water, 2/3 cup Shredded Wheat Biscuit crumbs, 1 1/2 lbs. rump steak cut 1 1/2 inches thick, salt, and pepper, olive oil, 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon flour. Chop the onion fine and cook slowly in the butter with the thyme and marjoram 10 minutes, but do not brown. Add lemon juice, crumbs 1/2 teaspoon salt, and boiling water; mix well. Cut a pocket in steak, salt and pepper lightly, and fill with the prepared dressing. Sew up and rub all over with the olive oil, salt and pepper, and put in covered pan in oven and cook 45 minutes, basting occasionally. Serve with gravy made by browning tablespoonful butter and 1 tablespoon Entire Wheat Flour, adding the hot meat stock from the pan, season with white pepper and salt. Serve the whole hot.”

The recipe for Dressed Beef Steak from <a href=";view=1up;seq=1" target="_blank">The Vital Question</a>.

The recipe for Dressed Beef Steak from The Vital Question.

Many nineteenth-century observers agreed that “natural food” had one essential quality: not being meat. If these early advocates couldn’t quite agree which food was natural, they still tended away from animal flesh, considering it quite as evil as another foe: white flour. This understanding of natural food, though, appears threatened in this recipe for dressed beef steak, featured in an 1898 recipe booklet by the outspoken manufacturer of Shredded Wheat, Henry Drushel Perky. Perky, head of the Cereal Machine Company, one of the largest food manufacturers of the late nineteenth century, certainly condemns white flour in this booklet: he advises that white bread violates Nature’s plans and imparts physical, moral, and social disease. The booklet says nothing explicit about meat, but a recipe says much. Evidently, stuffing Shredded Wheat inside a rump of beef—or lamb, veal, or poultry—did not create an unnatural meal. This is significant: in the turn-of-the-century contest over the definition of natural food, and of nature itself, companies with massive advertising budgets had a distinct advantage. The Natural Food Company printed editions of The Vital Question by the hundred-thousand, widely distributing literature that defined natural food as something whole-wheat, but potentially meat.

Shredded Wheat Fig Pie is an example of a cereal food featured in <a href=";view=1up;seq=1" target="_blank">The Vital Question</a> that is quite different than a bowl of milk and gains. There is no illustration of the Dressed Beef Steak in the booklet, so feel free to imagine the glorious potential.

Shredded Wheat Fig Pie is an example of a cereal food featured in The Vital Question that is quite different than a bowl of milk and gains. There is no illustration of the Dressed Beef Steak in the booklet, so feel free to imagine the glorious potential.

Companies and other reformers were writing the definition of natural food at this moment; they also negotiated the identity of breakfast cereal itself. Today, we take it for granted that cereal is a breakfast food, but that wasn’t always obvious. When the industry emerged, “cereal” still referred merely to any edible grass. That the manufacturers appropriating that word could encourage its use in making a rump steak speaks to two features of the late nineteenth century. First: “breakfast” meant a large meal consisting of various foods; the idea that a solo grain product could suffice might have indicated an unfortunate loss of appetite. As breakfast entailed no single food, no single food indicated breakfast: the first cereal manufacturers wanted people to eat their products all the time. Why, after all, should only the morning meal be perfect and natural? This booklet contains 154 recipes, laid out on menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Part marketing maneuver, The Vital Question shows consumers the many uses to which they could put a new product such as Shredded Wheat. These recipes, though, also suggest a process of breakfast finding its niche: as a natural food complementary to urban life.

Featured Image: “Mushrooms in Shredded Wheat Biscuit Baskets.” The Vital Question

Travis Weisse is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research sits at the intersection of diet, health, and society in the mid- to late-twentieth century. His M.A. thesis analyzed the local, political, and medical origins of the first cohesive national vegetarian/health food movement for African Americans during the civil rights era. Contact.

Michael S. Kideckel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. His dissertation, Fresh from the Factory: Breakfast Cereal, Natural Food, and the Business of Reform, 1890-1920, uses the breakfast cereal industry’s marketing of “natural food” as a case study for explaining the industrial roots of American ideas about nature. Contact.

Melissa Charenko is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on the history paleoecology and paleolimnology, particularly the various ways the past and possible futures are represented and reconstructed from proxy data. Contact.

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