Edward White’s monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
Few novels in American history have had the seismic social impact of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 work set among the gore and misery of Chicago’s slaughterhouses. Though the critics were sniffy about Sinclair’s drum-beating prose, his vivid descriptions of the insanitary conditions inside America’s abattoirs caused an outcry that hastened the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Despite the sales figures, Sinclair was only partially satisfied with the public reaction to his book. His aim had been to convert Americans to socialism; instead, he lamented, he had succeeded only in turning them into fussy eaters. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” he later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
1906 turned out to be a landmark year for both the American food industry, and American cuisine. While The Jungle was lighting fires in Congress, in Battle Creek, Michigan, William Keith Kellogg struck a deal with his brother John Harvey Kellogg that would begin a new, acrimonious chapter in the peculiar psychodrama of their relationship, and spark a revolution of the breakfast table. William bought from John full ownership of the company that produced their Toasted Corn Flakes, and swiftly turned a niche health food product into one of the biggest American brands in history, changing the diets of billions around the world.
Both these events, the regulation of the meat industry and the rise of breakfast cereal, were redolent of the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, in which it was assumed that a mixture of moral zeal and technocratic expertise could remedy all social ills, and alleviate individual suffering. But they are also wonderful examples of an unmistakably American approach to cooking and eating, what the academic Nicholas Bauch describes as “an obsession with getting food right … never being satisfied with the movement of organisms from nature to the eater’s body.”
In the Kellogg story there was one person in particular devoted to getting food right—not the flamboyant, egocentric John, nor the embittered, entrepreneurial William, but Ella Eaton Kellogg, John’s wife, one of the most overlooked but most important names in the ever-twisting story of America’s relationship with food. It was Ella who applied the Progressive mindset to a working kitchen, sowed the seeds of dietetics, and devised a new culinary philosophy for ordinary Americans which she outlined in 1892 with her book Science in the Kitchen. In her sober, efficient way—which perfectly mirrored the sober, efficient dishes she concocted in her kitchen—Ella bequeathed a huge legacy. Beyond the content of her recipes, which promoted vegetarianism and swore off refined sugar, she articulated the heady idea that perfecting food (and the systems in which it is created and consumed) is the key to perfecting human civilization. From Diet Coke to the Impossible Burger, America has long sought to perfect its food through scientific intervention. Few have gone at it as successfully as Ella Eaton Kellogg.
John and William Kellogg were raised in Battle Creek, Michigan. As a family of devout Seventh-day Adventists, the Kelloggs followed strict dietary proscriptions: no caffeine; no alcohol; no sugar; rules that would eventually become a point of great tension between the brothers. Though given little schooling—his parents favored preparation for the Second Coming over education—John had obvious intellectual talents and an irrepressible personality. At the age of twelve he was taken under the wing of Ellen White, a prophet and leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who gave him the job of copy editor for the Review and Herald. In his early twenties, and with White’s financial assistance, he spent three years studying medicine at the University of Michigan, and Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York, before being appointed, in 1875, head physician at the Western Health Reform Institute, a clinic owned by White and her husband. Within a year he renamed the place the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and began to pursue his dream of turning it into one of the most famous health resorts in the world, a beacon of hygienic living that would improve the physical and moral health of America and beyond.
At this same moment, Ella came into his life. Raised in New York State, Ella is still the youngest person to receive a bachelor’s degree from Alfred University in New York, which she achieved at age nineteen in 1872. In the summer of 1876, Ella and her sister went to visit an aunt in Battle Creek. Soon after their arrival, Ella’s sister was stricken by typhoid, and received care from staff at Kellogg’s sanitarium. When Ella took over nursing duties she caught John’s eye, though it does not sound like love at first sight; he said he was struck by her “absolute reliability and responsibility” and “unswerving devotion to duty,” and convinced her to stay in Battle Creek to help deal with the typhoid outbreak and work at the sanitarium.
They had met at a crucial juncture. He was “struggling with the multitudinous duties” of trying to make the sanitarium the place of his vision, and she was looking for some stimulating outlet for her talents and ambition, somewhere beyond the classroom where she could make a mark on the world. They married in February 1879, and Ella swiftly became integral to John’s mission at Battle Creek. She took on writing and responsibilities at Good Health, gave regular classes in home economics, and became centrally involved in the Women’s Temperance Union. Though she and John never had children of their own, they fostered more than forty during their married life, and adopted nine of them, with most of the parenting duties assumed by Ella, who immersed herself in the latest theories of pedagogy and child rearing. She was also involved in the day-to-day operations of the sanitarium, though that was mainly the stage upon which John performed. It was he who oversaw the dance classes and exercise sessions, the electric light baths and the salt scrubs; it was he who took all the patients up to the roof at the end of each day and led them in a rendition of “The Battle Creek Sanitarium March.”
One historian has described John as having an imperious attitude to his family, treating the children “more like research subjects than beloved sons and daughters,” and Ella “more like a business associate than a wife.” John was certainly a single-minded man with an enormous sense of destiny. Even those close to him found him overbearing and capable of great selfishness. William, the younger sibling by eight years, worked at the sanitarium, supposedly in a senior role, though he felt constantly demeaned by his elder brother. In view of the patients, John frequently rode his bicycle in the sanitarium’s grounds giving dictation to John as he jogged alongside. Sometimes he even had William take instructions from him while John had one of his frequent enemas. “He was a czar and a law unto himself,” said William of his brother, late in life.
On the page, at least, John was capable of tenderness and gratitude toward his wife. “A constant inspiration,” is how he described Ella, “as well as a most efficient and congenial helper and companion,” though she was much more than his “helpmeet.” In addition to all her other activities, Ella was instrumental in creating daily menus for the sanitarium’s staff and patients that were both healthful and palatable, a feat John described as her “greatest single achievement.” For his first several years in charge, John had been frustrated that so many of those who sampled his design for living had balked at the food. Meals were served in strict accordance with John’s philosophy of “biologic living.” Meat, thought to inflame carnal appetites, was banned, as were spices, which the Kelloggs were convinced led directly to alcoholism. Dairy was permissible in certain cases, but refined sugar was rarely allowed. Raised on spartan fare, John had no problem foregoing flavor for healthfulness, but conceded that to most people “what was left after meats of all sorts, butter, cane sugar, all condiments except salt, pies, cakes, gravies and most other likable and tasty things were excluded … was a rather uninviting residue. New arrivals were usually very much dissatisfied.” Many found the diet so grim that a few establishments in town—including the knowingly named Sinner’s Club—did roaring trade with absconding patients in search of a good steak, a cool beer, and a long, lung-clogging smoke.
In 1883, Ella attempted to solve the problem in a very Progressive way, by turning a kitchen into a laboratory in which she would experiment with endless ideas not only for new recipes but new ways of treating basic foodstuffs. Under the influence of the latest food science, she devised twenty-six basic diets, each of which could be adjusted to meet a patient’s individual needs. She also took the innovative step of breaking down recipes into their nutritional content, in tables listing proteins, fats, carbohydrates. From Ella’s kitchen also emerged meat substitutes, and the first commercially available peanut butter. Ella and John also developed Granola; they “borrowed” the concept from an associate who had developed a product called Granula, altered the recipe and changed the name to sidestep any legal problems. In turn, when C. W. Post came to stay at the sanitarium, he was so taken with Granola that he adapted it into his own product, Grape-Nuts, and used the Kelloggs’ coffee substitute as the basis of his drink Postum, phenomenally popular throughout the U.S. in the early twentieth century.
In 1892, the fruit of Ella’s labors was presented to the public in the form of Science in the Kitchen. Though it includes hundreds of recipes, it is less a cookbook, more a manual on how to feed the human body. It begins with a lengthy section explaining the workings of the digestive system, and goes on to explain the importance of hygiene and orderliness in the kitchen, before several hundred pages of dishes, most based around vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and pulses. The moral and spiritual aspects of cooking and eating are paramount to Ella. “How wide-spread is this habit of sensuous gratification through the sense of taste,” she wails, experiencing something close to horror at the prospect of eating for pleasure. It’s an odd way to preface a book of recipes, but it’s an instructive summation of the Kelloggs’ approach to consumption.
Though frequently bland, some of Ella’s dishes seem notably eccentric, especially in their textures. “Beets, boiled, 1 hour if young; old, 3 to 5 hours,” sounds appropriate only for the preparation of baby food, though her recipe for “macaroni baked with granola” is an intriguing concept. We’re on more familiar territory with “macaroni with cream sauce.” In fact, Ella suggests pouring cream on just about everything. With so much else branded unhealthy and immoral, cream does an awful lot of heavy lifting; Ella suggests combining it with potatoes, celery, beets, mushed chestnuts, baked pear, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, rice, pasta, bread, and dozens of other things.
Science in the Kitchen has little in it to inspire the gastronome. Recipes such as “graham mush” and “bran jelly” are unlikely to make most readers salivate. However, the book made a substantial impact, both for its recipes and its underlying philosophy of food. As John noted in 1920, “hundreds of her inventions in the line of new dishes have been adopted by the general public and are currently in modern cook-books, as well as the columns devoted to housewifery in newspapers and magazines.” This is especially true of the recipes in the section of the book dedicated to breakfast, a meal that occupied the Kelloggs more than any other. Breakfasts in late nineteenth-century America were often belt-loosening affairs. The writer Carl Van Vechten recalled that the daily breakfast spread of his Iowan childhood of the 1880s and 1890s included bacon, eggs, sausages, fried steaks, potatoes in cream, pancakes, doughnuts, and tea and coffee. This was anathema to the Kelloggs. Too much meat, too much salt and sugar, too much caffeine; a gluttonous mass of stimulation and base gratification. Instead, Ella posited a prototype of a modern breakfast: soft fresh fruit such as peaches, grapefruit, or oranges, followed by “some of the various cereals, oatmeal, rye, corn, barley, rice, or one of the numerous preparations of wheat, well cooked,” and, of course, “served with cream.”
These cereals were regarded as a key to the biologic living diet, bountiful Midwestern crops full of nutrition waiting to be unleashed by scientific principles. In Ella’s experimental kitchen, grains were split, ground, soaked, dried, rolled, mashed, baked, and double baked. In 1894, they stumbled upon a process that resulted in crisp flakes of wheat, which they packaged up and sold as Granose, the very first flaked cereal product. As the twentieth century approached, the Kelloggs and their sanitarium were famous across the country, making the town of Battle Creek a magnet for other health food companies. John was under no illusion who was most responsible for this: “the great food industries of Battle Creek,” he believed, were “all direct or indirect outgrowths of Ms. Kellogg’s experimental kitchen.”
In 1898, the Kelloggs adapted the Granose recipe to come up with their product Corn Flakes, the thing to which their name is still tied. By this time, however, life had taken a dark turn for Ella, who had suffered a serious breakdown a few months earlier. Exhaustion was likely a major cause. John described her working routine as “a miracle of efficiency and endurance … she broke under the strain which was too much for human nature to bear.” It’s possible John’s demanding nature also played its part, as perhaps did his fractious relationship with William.
Though Ella and John regarded the growth of other cereal-manufacturing companies as evidence that their mission to transform American eating habits was succeeding, William saw it as proof of a gigantic missed opportunity. While entrepreneurs scaled up production, deployed modern advertising techniques, and got their products onto Main Street, the Kelloggs sold only by mail order, and mainly to former patients. Sensing an opportunity to sprint clear of his brother’s shadow, William offered to buy the rights to make and sell Corn Flakes. John, eager for cash, agreed. In an unambiguous statement of self-assertion, William put both his name and his signature on the boxes. Seemingly unhappy that his little brother should be appropriating the family reputation, John responded by putting the Kellogg name on his own brand of breakfast cereal. It sparked a legal battle over the use of the Kellogg name which was only definitively settled, in William’s favor, in 1917.
The acrimony between the brothers did not impede the work of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. As the new century began, the venue had four hundred rooms, two indoor swimming pools, a thousand-seat chapel, and four hundred acres of bucolic farmland. Celebrities and eminences, including Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, continued to book themselves in for treatment. Though he satirized the vogue for spa treatments in his novel The Metropolis, Upton Sinclair submitted himself to the Battle Creek experience in 1909, and was convinced by John that going vegetarian would cure his long-standing digestive problems. It didn’t; he embraced various different diets over the years, but never reached the nirvana of intestinal equanimity.
Throughout this time, Ella was ailing. In an account of his wife’s life, John implied that neither her mental or physical health was ever truly restored after her breakdown. Most distressing was a rapid but inexorable loss of hearing, which John said was “rendered incurable by injudicious treatment by a renowned specialist.” Though it robbed Ella of her enjoyment of birdsong—especially that of a gray parrot that was her beloved pet in her final years—she taught herself to lip-read and acquired the ability to modulate her voice and carry out conversation. Placing her hand on the top of the family piano allowed her to feel music, but it pained her that she could no longer hear it.
Her ability to write, however, was never impeded. She continued in her writing and editing duties for Good Health, and published books about child rearing, cooking, and healthy living, all expositions of the Battle Creek philosophies that she and John had developed. Similarly, her commitment to healthy eating and “getting food right” lasted right up until the day she passed away in 1920, at the age of sixty-seven (which was more than a decade older than the average life expectancy of the time). The last thing she ate were strawberries, picked from her own garden.
One can only guess at what Ella made of William’s successes with the Kellogg brand, which strayed ever further from the abstemious principles of biologic living. One of William’s early advertising campaigns even seemed a little risqué for the time, with a tagline that encouraged housewives to “wink at your grocer and see what you get.” Perhaps even more harmful, from Ella’s point of view, would have been the refined sugar that William added to the Corn Flakes recipe to make them more enticing to the average consumer. Given that she hoped to change America, mind, body and soul, by removing fat and sugar from its breakfasts, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t live to see the Kellogg name attached to the unholy trinity of Pop-Tarts, Froot Loops, and Frosted Flakes.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was “The Lives of Others.”