The Whole Graining of America
Continued from Home Page
Wild and cultivated cereals not only saved their lives but also became the foundation of their prosperity.
From the South, the Olmec, Maya, and Aztecs thrived on wild millet until it gave way to higher yielding maize. Corn, beans, and squash—known as the Three Sisters—quickly spread from Mesoamerica up and down the entire Western Hemisphere. From the West, the Hopi tell of their ancestors arriving by rafts after floods destroyed the Third World, settling in the desert Southwest, and receiving the life-giving gift of maize. From the North, Viking explorers landed on the rocky North Atlantic coast, lived on wild grasses and grapes, and christened the bounteous new land Vineland. From the East, Christopher Columbus touched land in the Bahamas and his hungry crew replenished themselves with maize, bread made of sweet potatoes and cassava, and other native produce. In Virginia, the colonists at Jamestown received bowls of nourishing porridge from the Powhatans.
On Cape Cod, the Pilgrims arrived in the middle of winter, also surviving on stores of Indian corn and other produce. The first Thanksgiving, celebrating the fruits of the earth and harmony between settled inhabitants and the new arrivals, featured a multitude of grains, beans, squash, pumpkins, and other mostly plant-based food. From across the Pacific, Michio Kushi set foot on American soil in San Francisco on November 24, 1949, the 328th anniversary of this harvest festival. The young Japanese educator, accompanied on the long journey by steamship with rice balls and other simple foods, went on to launch a peaceful revolution that would restore cereal grains as the staff of life in America and enable millions of individuals and families to recover their health and well being.
America—midway between East and West, Europe and Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands—was destined to embrace all cultures and peoples, all grains and traditional ways of eating. While Columbus and later Conquistadors found little gold, they discovered something more precious—maize, amaranth, quinoa, wild rice, and other native grains. The true riches of the Orient—rice, millet, pearl barley, miso, tofu, tempeh, and other health-giving foods—took several generations to arrive. The new continent was named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian astronomer and explorer who first recognized that the islands and coastline constituted a New World. Amerigo hailed from Florence, a region nourished on rice and millet since the Crusades and one in which Dante, Leonardo, and other native sons extolled the virtues of a simple grain and vegetable diet. Toscanelli, the grandfatherly Florentine cosmologist who sent Columbus a letter and map advising him that the shortest route to the East lay by way of the West, was a vegetarian.
Four distinct ways of eating developed in early America as old and new streams mingled. In the North, East, and West, bread and baked goods—made of wheat, sometimes mixed with barley, cornmeal, or rye—was the staple. In the South, rice served as principal fare. In the Southwest, maize continued to be the foundation of native cultures, also consumed, until recently, as a main or supplemental grain in the other three regions. Wild rice once grew throughout North America and with other wild grasses formed the main food until displaced by maize. Today it is largely confined to the Great Lakes region and enjoyed primarily on Thanksgiving.
Known as maize, Indian corn, or simply corn, this prolific grain originated in Central America, reaching North America some five thousand years ago. Along with squash and beans, it constituted the staple food of native people from the desert Southwest to New England. Corn grew in many colors—yellow, white, red, black, blue, and spotted—corresponding in traditional myth and legend with heaven and earth and the four cardinal directions. Among mesa and cliff dwellers, maize was known as the Seed of Seeds, and blue corn was the most sacred since it reflected the color of water without which life would not be possible. In the Eastern Woodlands, maize was grown by girdling the trees to allow sunlight to penetrate the forest canopy and quicken the young stalks.
Corn was eaten primarily in the form of flatbread or other baked goods from from whole corn dough. This masa, as it was called, was made by grinding the kernels of corn between stones or rocks. The metate, made of hollowed out volcanic stone, and the mano, a hand-held stone, produced a malleable dough that, mixed with wood ask or lime and a little water, could be fashioned into thin round tortillas, corn balls, dumplings, and other shapes and cooked on hot stones or baked in an abobe oven. A variety of other corn dishes, including grilled corn on the cob, dried parched corn, suppone (porridge), popping corn, and fermented corn puddings and beverages could also be made from this versatile staff of life.
With their more advanced technology, the new Europeans could grind maize into finer meal than the Indians. In New England, cornmeal was used with barley, oats, wheat, or rye for making loaf bread. The children scraped the dried kernels from the corncobs while reciting their alphabets and numbers, and mothers ground samp, or meal, with pestles tied to saplings which did the lifting. Out at sea, fishermen followed the pounding rhythm of the mortars to a safe harbor in a storm. Later, grist mills were set up by streams and rivers which turned large stones for grinding. Johnnycakes, a type of journey-cake or pocket-bread, became popular up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Massachusetts, the Cradle of Liberty, featured Old Glory, a variety made of red, white, and blue speckled corn. Rhode Island, the first state to ratify the Constitution, became famous for its pure white cornmeal.
In the South, maize vied with rice as the main staple. Cornmeal was used daily for making hoecake, a think fried bread cooked in the fields on a hoe or other farm implement by families of African descent; ashcake, a bread roasted in the ashes of the hearth; pone, a porridge; corn dodgers or fried corn balls; hominy, coarsely ground cereal; and grits, a finely ground meal. Cornbread, the accompaniment of almost every meal, was originally made without milk, eggs, or sugar—a practice still observed in many Southern households.
Today, most of the corn grown in America is hybrid of genetically engineered. It is larger, more uniform in color, taste, and shape, and more abundant than traditional Indian corn. Standard or open-pollinated varieties are available in some native communities and selected natural foods stores. Most of the corn eaten today is sweet and tasty, but it bears little resemblance to the strong, colorful, diverse strains that once flourished across the continent. Also the highly processed form in which modern corn is enjoyed—cornflakes, high-fructose corn syrup, and canned corn—is a decline from corn in whole form.
The Rise, Fall, and Rediscovery of Wheat
Wheat came over with Columbus on the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria and with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. For millennia, its flour had been prized for making bread and baked goods. But until technical advances in the early nineteenth century, wheat was the aristocrat of grains, used sparingly and only on special occasions such as for the top layer of a pie—hence the expressed “upper crust.” The Puritans’ principal food was a dark brown bread made of a coarse mixture of wheat flour and cornmeal or occasionally rye. In the Mass Bay Colony, every family was expected to donate a measure of this precious grain each year to Harvard. This was known as College Corn.
The real impetus to wheat came from the Dutch, who settled in Manhattan, Long Island, Albany, and the Hudson River Valley. They brought with them a love of bread, dumplings, noodles, pancakes, waffles, doughnuts, pretzels, and other flour products. They built windmills for grinding wheat into flour and set up the first public bakeries in New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1656. The health-conscious Hollanders passed laws that bakeries could not sell sweetened pastries and cookies unless bread was also offered, nor could they sell white bread without making available dark brown. Wheat became the source of New Netherland’s prosperity. The English, who later took political control over the region continued to grow wheat, and during the late 1700s, New York was known as the Granary of the Revolution.
With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1817, the cost of wheat fell sharply. Advances in milling from the 1840s through the 1880s made wheat flour readily available, though the vast majority of American families still made their own bread, pancake batter, and pies. Sleep clipper ships transported the cheap wheat abroad, undermining traditional agricultural products in Europe and purring immigration to the Midwest, Great Plains, and other bountiful, wheat-growing regions by newly unemployed farmers and their families. New, mechanized steel roller mills made available an almost 100 percent white flour. The invention of baking powder, baking soda, and commercial yeast made light muffins, biscuits, and other refined baked goods readily affordable.
Nineteenth century health reformers led by Rev. Sylvester Graham, staunchly opposed this trend and encouraged people to return to “unbolted wheat” and other whole grains of their ancestors. But increasingly consumption of meat and other animal foods made unleavened breadstuffs unpopular and old-fashioned. With whole grains no longer the center of the diet, the art of chewing declined. With the exception of the “sourdoughs”—the gold prospectors in California, the Yukon, and Alaska who lived on sourdough bread—most people preferred a light easy-to-eat loaf. By the early twentieth century, the flour milling and baking industries had the American people on the superiority of their light, white products. Inexpensive, factory-made bread—enriched with the vitamins and minerals that had been stripped in the milling process—could be found in nearly every household.
Following World War II, baking homemade bread became something of a lost art. Rediscovered in the 1960s by the counterculture, popularized by the macrobiotic community, and endorsed by the medical profession, whole wheat once again began to appear on the nation’s table. A cornucopia of dishes and baked items in now available made from whole wheat berries, cracked wheat, bulgur, couscous, whole wheat four, and whole wheat gluten, including many healthful and delicious breads and baked goods and entrees made from noodles and pasta and from seitan and fu.
Rice’s Journey from East to West
For thousands of years, rice has been the staff of life in South Asia and the Far East. From China and India, rice traveled the ancient Silk Road to Europe and Africa. During the Renaissance, rice was a principal grain in Tuscany and other Mediterranean regions. Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine astronomer and navigator after whom America is named, arranged for the first rice to be brought to the New World in 1512.
In the 1600s, rice was grown in Virginia, the Carolinas, and other English colonies, and it is likely that it arrived as part of the slaved trade. West Africa had a sophisticated rice-growing technology extending back many centuries and enslaved African farmers from the Rice Coast of present-day Ghana are believed to have developed and managed the first rice plantations in America. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ancestors from Georgia may have been enslaved rice farmers. By the early eighteenth century, South Carolina was growing enough rice to send 60 tons to London. The new crop thrived in the marshy soil of the Piedmont and became the colony’s most important product.
In the nineteenth century, rice moved west with the rest of the country. From the Carolinas it traveled to New Orleans, and Southerners throughout the region celebrated the New Year with bowls of rice cooked with colorful red, black, or brown beans. Native Americans discovered that rice could be parched, salted, and eaten like popcorn. Rice-parching socials became as fashionable in the South as chestnut roasts in New England. Other popular dishes included rice croquettes, rice pudding, rice waffles, rice bread, rice jelly, and rice milk. Today, rice is grown throughout the continent, as far north as Ontario, and in Hawaii. However, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, California, and other warmer regions remain the center of commercial rice production. Hardy paddy and dry land rice are now also grown in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, and throughout the Northeast.
With improvements in technology, refined white rice became widely available in the early twentieth century. By the 1950s, most of the rice eaten in the U.S. and Canada was 100 percent polished white rice. The waves of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast and the arrival of families from the Philippines Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, and other countries, popularized rice. But most of the rice eaten in Asia for the century has been polished to some degree.
The reintroduction of whole-grain brown rice is due largely to Michio and Aveline Kushi and the modern macrobiotic community. In the 1960s, the Kushis and their associates arranged with farmers to begin growing organic brown rice. After several generations of chemical farming, there was widespread skepticism and resistance to growing rice with traditional methods. However, after Erewhon—the Kushis’ pioneer natural foods store—agreed to buy their entire crop, pioneer rice farmers in Arkansas and California began to experiment with chemical-free methods.
Today, organically grown brown rice has spread around the world. Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale, CA and Lone Pine Farm in Arkansas supply much of the organic brown rice on this continent and large amounts are exported to Japan.
Rice—the most evolutionary developed and balanced of the cereal grains—has become the principal food of the worldwide macrobiotic community. Everywhere it is recognized as a healthful daily food and one that contributes to social harmony and spiritual development. Every civilization in which is has been cultivated—Far Eastern, South Asian, Southeast Asian, African, European, and North and South American—has contributed to the development of rice cookery. Rice will truly become a foundation of the planetary cuisine in the new era of humanity ahead.
The Political and Economic Revolution
There have been three major revolutions in modern American history: 1) the political and economic revolution that saw the original thirteen colonies declare their independence from Europe and consolidate their control over native peoples in the eastern half of the land; 2) the social and cultural revolution that saw the new American Republic nearly break up over slavery and then extend its domain west, absorbing wave after wave of immigrants from around the world; and ) the health and environmental revolution that saw the country imperiled by industrial pollution, chemical agriculture, artificial electromagnetic radiation, and the spread of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. The place of whole cereal grains in the life of the continent shaped and influenced each of these three eras:
When representatives of the New World and Old World first encountered each other, they shared common food and forged common bonds based on mutual respect. However, the early natural lifestyle and way of eating of the colonists and native peoples was challenged by the increased availability and consumption of meat, dairy, fish, and other animal food. On the European side, the abundance of wild game—spurred by the fur trade—and almost unlimited land to raise livestock influenced changing dietary patterns. On the Native American side, the introduction of the horse and rifle turned animals such as the bison from a rarity in the diet to a staple. Combined with strong yin in the form of rum, whiskey, and other alcohol, this made for an explosive combination, especially as white settlers moved westward infringing on native hunting grounds.
Still, the amount of meat and dairy products consumed was modest by later standards. The manifest for one of Columbus’ expeditions show that the first of the conquistadors arrived in the New World with a cargo containing about 70 percent grains (in the form of wheat, wheat flour, and biscuit); about 10 percent beans (mostly garbanzos); about 10 percent assorted plant-quality foods (olive oil, vinegar, raisins and wine; and the remaining 10 percent animal food (dried fish, cheese, and salt pork). Though small in volume, this strong salted, dried, and aged animal food, along with a lack of grain consumed in whole form and fresh vegetables and fruits, gave rise to a pattern of ruthless, yang aggression and exploitation.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Europeans’ overall rigid, excessively yang approach culminated in England’s supremacy over the seas and domination of the other imperial powers. A small island nation, Britain was more yang than its continental neighbors, by virtue of its more compact size, northerly location, and salty atmosphere. With the agricultural revolution of the early 1600s new methods of breeding sheep and cattle results in passage of enclosure laws that overturned traditional English ways of farming and eating that existed for centuries. Merry Olde England—the land of John Barleycorn and pease porridge—became wedded to beef mutton, rashers, and other animal fare as leader of the emerging mercantile system.
To roughly balance this strong yang food, England—and other European empires—were magnetically attracted to spices, sugar, and other extreme yin from Asia, Africa, South America, and especially the Caribbean. Essentially a war between traditional farming and new industrial way of life, the American Revolution cannot be understood apart from this sweeping agricultural and dietary axis shift that saw meat and sugar replace grains and vegetables as the center of the modern diet.
The main events leading up to the conflict—the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and Boston Tea Party—are all intimately linked with articles of food. The Triangular Trade that developed saw Britain export finished goods to Africa, enslaved peoples from that continent being transported to the West Indies to toil in the sugar plantations, and tropical commodities especially sugar, returning to Britain and her far-flung colonies. The colonies on the North American mainland were drawn into this trade by another triangle. Molasses from Barbados, Jamaica, and other West Indian islands went to New England to make rum, rum from New England returned to the West Indies, and human cargoes from Africa returned to the islands.
England sought to control the flow of this trade through a series of laws and tariffs and reaped the lion’s share of the profits (in keeping with its carnivorous monarchial symbol). This taxation without representation, especially to pay for the cost of Britain’s war with Spain, France, and other imperial powers in the West Indies, put the American colonies on a collision course with Britain. Though minute in size, the West Indies were the most important source of England’s wealth, as well as the source of a commodity that had become a necessity in the daily way of eating. “I know not why we should bush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence,” John Adams observed in 1775. It also owed its success to the outcome of the naval conflict among the rival powers in the Caribbean. “If we lose our Sugar Islands,” King George III wrote, “it will be impossible to continue the war [in the colonies].” Six years after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, the Revolutionary War ended when France, engaged in competition with England for control of Dominica, Martinique, Granada, and St. Lucia, entered the war and provided the decisive margin of victory at Yorktown. “The loss of the Sugar Islands to the French and their [England’s] determination to get them back, concludes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power: The Political, Social and Economic Effects of Sugar in the Modern World, “explains the otherwise inexplicable willingness of the French government to enter the War of American Independence on the side of the Americans.”
Among the first to perceive this economic and political collision course and take action was a young Virginia planter, George Washington. At his Mount Vernon estate, the young surveyor and frontiersman grew corn, wheat, and other cereal grains, raised vegetables and fruits, produced a small amount of animal food, including fish from the Potomac, and tobacco. Early in his career, he invented a plow that automatically dropped seeds into furrows and throughout his life tinkered with ways to improve the quality and yield of grain. Meanwhile, most neighboring plantations in the Virginia Tidewater had converted to growing tobacco exclusively which found a ready market in England.
Washington strongly opposed this trend. He felt that tobacco destroyed the land, required too much labor, left the planter vulnerable to starvation and bankruptcy is the crop failed, and made Virginian dependent on Britishers who supplied them with obsolete and inferior goods. Washington abhorred slavery, and the toll it took in the labor-intensive tobacco fields was another reason he declined to abandon grains. Taking his cue from farmers in the inland Piedmont who had no access to British markets, he decided to step up grain production and develop a local market.
By 1766, Washington had stopped growing tobacco to concentrate on corn and wheat. To process his crops, he built a new stonemill that could grind grain for the surrounding community. Later he invited a Philadelphia inventor to automate it.Thus an entire decade before the Revolution broke out, we find that Washington had broken psychologically with England over the central issue of whether the land should be used to grow grains that benefited everyone or luxurious cash crops that profited a few. That is allegiance to cereals was not economically motivated is further shown by Washington’s own moderate way of eating. Throughout his life, friends, associates, and visitors remarked on his simple tastes and practice of often eating only a single dish. For breakfast, he customarily enjoyed “three small Indian hoecakes” and “as many dishes of tea (without cream).”
Throughout his administration as president, Washington upheld the ideal of economic self-sufficiency for the new Republic, balancing Thomas Jefferson’s even more radical vision of a nation of small farmers and shopkeepers with Alexander Hamilton’s advocacy of a strong central economy. A watermark of the Goddess of Agriculture sitting on a plow, holding a staff of liberty in one hand and a flowering branch in the other, adorned Washington’s last will and testament.
At various stages in their lives, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson also adopted a macrobiotic or semi-macrobiotic way of eating. Franklin became a vegetarian as a youth growing up in Boston, as he writes in his Autobiography, and dined mainly on rice. His arrival in Philadelphia with a loaf of whole-grain bread under each arm has entered American folklore. Franklin’s peaceful, even-minded temper and creative spirit of inquiry led him to seek out and befriend the Huron. Franklin’s Albany Plan for federal-style rule, later adopted by the Continental Congress, drew upon the model of Deganawida, “the Peacemaker,” the sixteenth century founder of the Iroquois League of Five Nations and developer of the Great Law of Peace. (The Iroquois model went farther than the Philadelphia model, granting suffrage to women and infants, making provision for impeachment of officials, and prohibiting unlawful entry into private homes.)
Like Washington, Jefferson managed one of the South’s largest plantations, growing a multitude of grains, vegetables, and other produce and lent his inventive mind to creating new farm implements. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he declared, “is to add a useful plant to its culture.” During the Revolution, the British confiscated the entire harvest of rice in the South, including seed rice, threatening to destroy what hade become a staple grain throughout the region. During a visit to France as one of the U.S. ambassadors, Jefferson noticed that hardy unpolished rice was used by many people as a staple, especially during religious holidays such as Lent when meat was not eaten. Most of the rice consumed in France came from Italy, so Jefferson went to that country for the purpose of obtaining rice seed to send back to America and to see a newly developed rice-clearing machine that Edward Rutledge had described to him in Congress in 1775. The Italian government, however, had strict laws prohibiting the export of rice seed by penalty of death. Determined to introduce this food item to North America, Jefferson risked a diplomatic scandal by hiring an Italian mule driver to illegally cross the border with several large sacks of seed from the best rice-growing district in Italy—the region between Turin and Milan, which had been growing rice since Dante’s time. The shipment was stopped at the border and turned back. Undaunted, Jefferson filled the large pockets of his coat with seed and carried it across the border himself. Upon arriving back in France, he sent the seed to Charleston where it was divided among a select group of planters. Jefferson was so pleased with the outcome of this project that he later arranged for seeds of rice to be sent to the Carolinas from Egypt, China, and Vietnam. The main author of the Declaration of Independence also brought back noodles and a noodle-making machine from Italy and a waffle iron from Holland to make rice waffles.
For most of his presidency, Jefferson observed a cosmopolitan style of eating, experimenting with new foods and introducing French cuisine, delicate wines, and ice cream to the White House. Fellow Virginian Patrick Henry castigated him for his foreign tastes and neglect of American beef. Overseeing the purchase of foods for the White House every day, Jefferson “would get out the wagon in the morning and [with his steward] go … to Georgetown to market”—a custom observed in the breech by his successors. Toward the end of his life, Jefferson gave up animal food altogether. The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook by his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, includes a recipe in his own handwriting for “The Chinese Mode of Boiling Rice.” Oriental thought also influenced Jefferson, and sentiments in his writings such as “the government of a family bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation” may owe their origin to the philosophy of the I Ching and the Yellow Emperor’s Class as much as Gulliver’s Travels.
Three other signers of the Declaration of Independence from the South were also rice farmers. Another signer, the famous medical doctor, Benjamin Rush, recommended a temperate way of eating to his patients, including rice and vegetables, and warned against highly spiced foods. Further north, John and Abigail Adams’ wartime correspondence includes reminiscences of simple home-cooked food. Not since the Renaissance had the world witnessed such a creative flowering of the arts and sciences as that which accompanied the movement for American political liberty. And like the Florentine painter, the small group of men and women who guided the American Revolution were eating primarily whole grains and were devoted to their cultivation as the foundation of a new order for the ages.
The Social and Cultural Revolution
The nineteenth century brought rapid expansion of the new Republic, but also deep division and bloody conflict. Washington, Jefferson, and other founders had hoped to end slavery and prohibit its expansion to new territories. But to held together the fragile coalition, a compromise was reached, allowing the South to retain slavery for a limited time. Meanwhile, growing prosperity led to increased consumption of meat and sugar, especially in the border states where land had not yet been completely cleared for planting, hardening attitudes between Northerners and Southerners. Davy Crockett’s youthful exploits killing bears and other wild game for his family further enshrined the virtues of animal food in frontier legend. Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and other generals rode into the White House in the wake of popular military campaigns against native people and Mexicans whose lands were needed for the nation’s Manifest Destiny of growing sugar and cotton and breeding cattle. Uncle Sam, the sinewy symbol of the emerging Republic, derived from Samuel Wilson, a Hudson River meatpacker.
Polarity between North and South increased as ways of eating between the two halves of the country continued to diverse. In the more industrial North, wheat supplanted corn as the main grain, beef became the meat of choice, and dairy food assumed a regular place in the diet. In the mostly rural South, corn and rice continued as principal grains, with pork serving as the main source of animal food. Sugar and alcohol consumption increased in both regions, contributing to family and social tensions. Natural foods, vegetarianism, and anti-temperance, sentiment were an integral part of many utopian communities during this era, and health food became inseparable from political and social change. Charles Finney, president of Oberlin College and a prominent Grahamite, assumed leadership of the Abolitionist movement. Quaker John Woolman refused to eat sugar because of its role in the slave trade, and many Abolitionists boycotted rice, sugar, molasses, cotton, and other articles produced by slave labor. The Amistad Affair—a cause celebre growing out of a rebellion among thirty-six Africans who seized their slave ship—included many rice farmers who had been abducted from their fields and transported to America.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, war broke out in 1861. While a nation’s destiny is rarely altered by a single individual, historians agree that without Lincoln’s leadership the Union almost undoubtedly would not have been preserved. The attributes that carried him through—patience, perseverance, common sense, good humor, and magnanimity—are qualities of moderation and balance traditionally associated with whole cereal grains. Growing up in Kentucky and Indiana, young Lincoln helped his father in the fields planting wheat and corn. As a young man he ferried a boatload of produce down the Mississippi to New Orleans where he saw human beings bought and sold and developed a life-long abhorrence of slavery. Relocating in Illinois, he took a job as a clerk to a man who owned a grain mill and became a partner in a general store in New Salem. In 1834, he ran for the state legislature and won the hearts—and votes—of many farmers by cradling more wheat than anyone else. In his speeches against the extension of slavery to new territories, Lincoln attacked human bondage as an institution that prevented the black person from “eating the bread which is own hand earns” and invoked an image of America as a name of self-made agrarians, merchants, and shopkeepers. In a poem written after a visit to his birthplace in 1844, he recounted walking “the very spot where grew the bread that formed my bones”—a remarkable consciousness of the transformative powers of food in general and whole grains in particular.
In his personal life, Lincoln followed a very simple way of eating, preferring mostly grains and vegetables and eating in small volume. His favorite food was fruit, especially apples, cherries, and oranges. Occasionally, he ate animal food, especially fish and seafood, tough as a politician and frequent public speaker he would be expected to partake at banquets and county fairs were all and everything was served. In the White House, he was legendary for his modest eating habits, often taking such bread or an apple for a meal. This plain, more centrally balanced way of eating contributed to his broad vision of a unified America, to a calm, peaceful mind in the most trying of circumstances, and to a firm, steady hand on the ship of state through the entire course of the war.
Many turning points have been advanced in the Civil War, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the victory at Vicksburg. It has also often been said that the North could not have prevailed if England had not continued trading with the South. During the last several years of the war, the Confederacy made every effort to maintain commercial ties with Britain in order to secure scarce goods as well as hard currency needed to continue the war effort. The British were particularly dependent on Southern cotton for textile factories—the foundation of the new industrial revolution—in Manchester, Liverpool, and other cities. Had Britain challenged the North’s blockade of Southern shipping, the South would probably have remained strong enough to successfully sue for peace. Southern commanders and troops are generally conceded to have been more imaginative and flexible. But few have attributed this to their simpler food, mostly corn and rice, in comparison to the Northerners’ tins of beef and mutton. As it was, Lincoln narrowly won reelection in 1864 amid widespread Northern sentiment to end the war on terms favorable to Richmond. Ultimately, England decided not to make an alliance with the South. While moral reasons played some role in this decision, the underlying reason was economic. Britain had become dependent upon American grain and flour following massive crop failures in Europe. The wheat she required came from the Midwest, Great Plains, and other Northern areas. As a proverb at the time put it, “King Corn proved more powerful than King Cotton.” England’s decision not to intervene in the Civil War was as crucial to the outcome as France’s decision to intervene in the Revolutionary War. In both cases, food commodity exchange, agriculture, and way of eating determined the outcome.
Spurred by changing agriculture and patterns of food consumption, millions of immigrants came to America from Northern and Central Europe. In addition to crop failures, land that had been used for millennia to grow grains was now given over to pasture and livestock grazing, as well as new crops from the tropics such as the potato. In Ireland, Germany, and other countries, the failure of these crops led to widespread famine, giving further impetus to the exodus. Meanwhile, technical innovation in America, encouraged by the war effort, resulted in a host of new inventions and improvements in farm equipment, storage facilities, food preservation and processing, and transportation. In the wheat belt, as we saw, this led to cheap American wheat being exported to Europe, further undermining local economies.
The influx of families from many lands had overall an enriching effect on North American life and culture. However, in the short run, it served to aggravate tensions with native peoples. As president, Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act, granting 140 acres of land to any family who would cultivate it for five years. While this was a logical extension of his vision to transform the continent into “a garden” of farms and orchards producing grains and plenty for all, the act unwittingly accelerated the destruction of native cultures. By the end of the nineteenth century, the new nation reached from coast to coast, unified by golden grains but also by a legacy of unchecked expansion that would lead to more unfortunate consequences in the future.
Diet and World Wars I and II
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, millions of East Indians, Chinese, Javanese, and other Asian immigrants flocked to the Caribbean to handle sugarcane and other commodity crops following the cessation of slavery by the European powers. In the United States, millions of Chinese were imported to work on the railroads and in the fields. Friction between different racial and ethnic groups often resulted. Meanwhile, at gunpoint, the Western nations compelled China, Japan, and other traditional societies to open their doors to disadvantageous trade and market agreements. An anticolonial reaction beginning in the 1880s set off a wave of bloodshed in Asia and Africa, culminating the political freedom movements and social revolutions of the twentieth century.
Although the Industrial Revolution increased material prosperity, it also increased the pace of life, and infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, typhus fever, smallpox, and measles, assumed epidemic proportions. Prior to this time, degenerative diseases were virtually unknown. In the late eighteenth century, individual cases of cancer, stroke, and other chronic disorders began to emerge in the upper classes that were most prone to dietary excess. Further, as in past eras, disease and pestilence followed waves of international food exchange. During the nineteenth century, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and other water-borne diseases and malaria, yellow fever, and other fly-borne diseases became epidemic in the manufacturing countries and their foreign colonies. Continued quantification and specialization in science led to the rise of metabolic theory and advances in surgery and drug use. Liebig, the founder of modern nutrition, popularized the classification of nourishment into categories and subcategories, beginning with protein (“the primary” nutrient) and devised an infant formula to replace mother’s milk. The superiority of meat eggs, and dairy food gained widespread acceptance following the Darwinian biological and social revolutions that ranked civilizations, like species, according to the amount of animal protein they consumed on the evolutionary ladder. Simple carbohydrates that gave quick energy such as white flour, refined sugar, and potatoes were touted as productive foods for workers and miners and became even more desirable.
“It is the exhaustion of the cereal seeds that causes the weakening of the seed of humanity,” Emile Zola warned at the end of the nineteenth century as modern civilization reaped the first fruits of mechanized agriculture. Industrial society, however, remained blind to the admonitions of the French novelist, as well as other early health reformers such as Ellen Harmon White and John Harvey Kellogg, the Adventist leaders who opened a vegetarian healing center in Battle Creek, Michigan, and Horace Fletcher, a Yale researcher who popularized the art of chewing and attracted such celebrated disciples as William and Henry James, John D. Rockefeller, and the cadets at West Point.
By the start of the new century, Europe and North America’s desire for excessive yang food increased, and livestock producers (such as the ranchers in the western U.S., Argentina, and Australia) could not fill society’s demand for beef. A further round of yin stimulants, pacifiers, and narcotics brought back by Western military expeditions in Cuba, the Philippines, the Congo, and elsewhere began to have devastating social consequences. Even alcohol, a longstanding yin balance to yang meat and animal food, grew out of control, and a movement to prohibit it spread in the industrial countries because of its corrosive effects on family life. Pasteurized milk became available, and the invention of the cream separator, the milking machine, and advances in commercial refrigeration launched the modern dairy industry. Between 1875 and 1915, sugar consumption doubled to 80 pounds per capita, and Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Dr Pepper became widely available, with their popularity increasing with each new decade.
In 1914 the assassination of an Austrian archduke lit the fuse that set off fighting among the European powers locked in a bitter competition to colonize Africa and Asia and control the Suez sea routes to the East. In addition to sugar, spices, and other foods, the conflict involved an intense competition for rubber, coal, pig-iron, rubber, and other raw industrial materials. In 1917 the United States joined the war when German U-boats threatened to starve England into submission by sinking food vessels off the south and west coasts. On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. Food Administrator Herbert Hoover purchased the entire U.S. sugar and hog crops to help save Britain.
From a biological perspective, World War I represented an explosive discharge of stagnant metabolic social energy that had been accumulating in Europe for many decades as a result of dietary and environmental excess. The mechanization of modern life at this period reflected the increasing mechanization of the modern food and agricultural system itself. The advent of skyscrapers, the use of glass as a primary building material, and the development of the automobile, luxury liner, and aeroplane coincided with the increased use of metal and glass in canning, bottling, and packaging. When war came, these vehicles, used to transport meat, produce, and manufactured foods around the world, were transformed into tanks, battleships, and fighter planes. Developments in long-range striking power (rifles, machine guns, artillery) also paralleled the rise in meat and sugar consumption, and the introduction of poison gas followed the chemical adulteration of commercial food.
The myth of Western progress and European superiority was shattered by the war. By the time global fighting ended, nearly 40 million people had died, about half from direct fighting and about half from an epidemic of influenza that swept the world. Few lessons were learned from this war as the trend toward greater mechanization in all aspects of life continued. But the fundamental role of diet as the hidden mechanism of history was not lost on a few prophetic voices. Sir William Osler, the father of modern medical education, observed, “More people are killed by over-eating and drinking than by the sword.” Cancer researcher William Howard Hay, M.D., concurred, “White flour and white sugar have cost more lives than all the wars of all time.
After World War I, the efforts to balance extreme foods reached a new plateau. The creation of mammoth incubators led to the mass production of poultry. In the 1920s home refrigeration came into vogue, and prepackaged frozen foods reduced the consumption of fresh garden produce. Refined, canned, and dehydrated foods also took an increasing share of the market. In the 1930s the vitamin industry developed, selling back to the consumer the nutrients removed in processing grain. Artificial colors, chemical preservatives, and other additives found their way into daily food as new synthetic flavors, cosmetic appearance, and extended shelf life replace wholesomeness and nutrition as primary concerns. Monoculture, itself a departure from traditional farming techniques, failed to meet the rising demand for unseasonal fare, and modern society began to turn to chemical agriculture to increase production, stretch quantity, and meet demand. These changes, along with increased consumption of beef and other animal foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, laid the foundation for the modern epidemics of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions that soared in the middle of the century. The rise in cigarette smoking, increased industrial pollution, and a more sedentary way of life resulting from the spread of the automobile and other modern conveniences contributed to the increased incidence of these disorders.
As chaotic dietary habits spread, intuition and native common sense declined. Populations in the industrialized countries became subject to delusional ideologies and the manipulation of rigid or unstable political and military leaders. The end result was another devastating world war among Germany, France, Britain, the U.S., U.S.S.R., Japan, and other nations eating the modern diet. It was accompanied by a new rise in the level of inhumanity toward the Jews, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, and other people eating more traditionally.
America at Mid-Century
Following World War II, the final artificialization of modern agriculture, food production, and medicine took place. Chemical farming became nearly universal as inexpensive petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides became available. DDT, a powerful insecticide that proved successful in reducing malaria during the war, was introduced as common pesticide. Synthetic antibiotics, hormones, and preservatives further weakened the quality of meat and poultry, and more animal products had to be consumed to maintain the same level of energy and sensory satisfaction. The consumption of soft drinks and citrus juices, where were also very yin, skyrocketed and helped to balance this overly yang intake.
Beginning in the 1950s, mass television advertising campaigns began to sell the appearance of food, including its packaging and social status, rather than the quality of the food itself. Beef, milk, cheese, ice cream, and other products of the cow completely replaced whole grains, noodles, and pasta as the staple in the American diet. With the introduction of fast food and TV dinners and the growth of neighborhood drive-ins, pizza parlors, and hamburger chains, the home-cooked meal became the exception rather than the rule. From eating so much animal food, American women became too yang and more frequently left the home to work, and a majority gave up breastfeeding for infant formula. The medical profession and the dietetic associations lent their seal of approval to the new way of eating, promoting imbalanced nutritional theories such as the Basic Four food groups and endorsing the superiority of enriched, processed foods over whole natural foods, including mother’s milk.
For the first time in human history, daily cooking left the home and became largely the responsibility of people outside the family. Automats, vending machines, drive-through fast food chains, and other mechanical, assembly line techniques insulated much of the food that was served from any human contact. Electricity and the microwave replaced wood and gas as main methods of cooking, subjecting food to further artificial electromagnetic vibrations, loss of natural energy, and even changes in molecular structure. Grace, or giving thanks for the bounty of the earth—a custom that had sustained generations from the earliest settling of the continent—largely disappeared from the family dining table along with real food and was replaced with the latest jingles and mantras of the newspapers, comics, the radio or TV, and eventually the computer and smart phone. If modern people thought about their way of eating at all, they recognized a vague allegiance to a godhead of protein, fat, and carbohydrate; a devil called calories; and a minor pantheon of vitamins and minerals.
Television replaced the hearth as the center of the modern household. The nightly news—featuring the Cold War nuclear arms buildup, hostilities between the superpowers, and regions wars—supplanted ordinary dinnertime conversation. An atmosphere of international fear and crisis surrounded the meal, further contributing to feelings of isolation and despair. Everyone knew that the world could be blown up I the time it took to microwave dinner.
During the postwar period, the latest turn in the international food exchange spiral witnessed Western soldiers (the most physical or yang element of society) returning from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Lebanon, El Salvador, and other tropical and semitropical regions with marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and opium. Once again, the influx of extreme yin from the tropics began to seriously undermine family life and social order. Legislative efforts to prohibit illicit drugs proved as futile as the efforts of previous generations to control sugar and alcohol.
Black and native peoples experienced an especially heavy burden of sickness and suffering as a result of the modern diet. Modern soul food included large quantities of meat (usually pork parts); collards, mustard, and turnip greens; butter beans; black-eyed peas; sweet potatoes and cornbread—all cooked in or laced with pork, fat, lard, milk, eggs, butter, salt, spices, and sugar. This was of eating and cooking derived from slavery under which black people were given the cheapest, most indigestible foods and learned to make them edible by marinating and smothering them with seasonings and spices. The Civil Rights movement targeted the serving of food at segregated lunch counters and other eating establishments. However, the influence of diet on consciousness and behavior during this period is largely unexplored. From an energetic perspective, the essentially vegetable quality diet of Southern blacks enabled them to remain more flexible, peaceful, and nonviolent than whites, who were eating higher up on the food chain. Animal protein, in particular, contributed to harder, narrower arteries, nerves, and reactions.
Similarly, Native American communities, uprooted from their homelands and often forced to convert to a new religion and learn a new language, forget their ancestral traditions and adopted a modern diet. Dispensed freely as part of government surplus programs, white flour, sugar, and dairy food led to epidemic rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and lung disorders on many reservations. As indigenous nations won legal rights to set up casinos and tax-free stores, affluence produced richer diets and the chronic disorders that accompanied them.
As a result of tampering with the elements and refusing to abide by the limits of the four seasons, cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and other degenerative disorders proliferated through the world, reaching epidemic proportions by the end of the century. In the face of the collapse of natural human beings, scientists began to tamper with the basic quality of life itself. Introduced in the mid-1990s, genetically engineered food spread invisibly through the American food system, accounting for 90 percent or more of the soybeans, corn, and cotton crops.
The Health and Environmental Revolutions
During the second half of the twentieth century, spearheaded by Michio and Aveline Kushi and the modern macrobiotic movement, the continent’s direction began to reverse course. Though initially ignored and ridiculed by the scientific and medical profession, macrobiotics began to be taken seriously after researchers associated the standard American diet with the nation’s epidemic levels of degenerative disease. One of the first steps in this direction followed President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955. The White House physician, Paul Dudley White, who had an interest in vegetarian and traditional societies such as the Hunza, the long-lived people in the Himalayas, put Ike on a modified low-fat diet. The change in way of eating not only enabled him to run for reelection, but also may have relaxed his thinking and vision. His famous speech warning of a “military-industry complex” in the body politic appears to have followed naturally the reduction of saturated fat and cholesterol in his own system.
The turning point in the nation’s declining health came in 1977 with the publication of Dietary Goals for the United States, the landmark report of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by Senator George McGovern. The report linked the modern diet with six of the ten leading causes of death, warning of an unrecognized “wave of overnutrition” that was as destruction to the nation as mal- or undernutrition. The concerns and values of the macrobiotic community, the natural foods movement, and the organic farming segment echoed in schools and classrooms, hospitals and clinics, and the corridors of power. Spurred by macrobiotic studies on heart disease at Harvard Medical School and the Framingham Heart Study, the medical profession began issuing dietary guidelines for the first time recommending substantial reduction in animal foods and simple sugars and corresponding increases in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Though McGovern lost the presidency, the McGovern Report may be regarded by future generations as the Emancipation Proclamation of the diet and health revolution of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Like the dietary threat, pollution and the destruction of the environment took decades to be recognized as dangers to the health and safety of modern society. By the last decade of the century, it was widely acknowledged that destruction of the tropical rain forests was primarily due to raising livestock for beef consumption and that on this continent water pollution (from pesticide runoff), soil erosion, and wildlife destruction were largely caused by modern agriculture and food processing, especially production of animal food. In addition, a significant proportion of the nation’s energy and natural resources were used to produce, process, and prepare animal foods—a total of twice that supplied by all nuclear power plants and equal to total oil imports.
In 1981 a panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science met to evaluate the national impact of implementing Dietary Goals for the United States. Beyond an improvement in public health, the AAAS symposium found that dietary changes would have far-reaching social and economic benefits. The scientists concluded that adoption of a diet centered on whole cereal grains rather than meat, poultry, dairy, and other animal foods would have significant effects on everything from land, water, fuel, and mineral use to the cost of living, employment rates, and the balance of international trade.
As the new millennium approached, these trends moved into the mainstream. Whole-grain fiber and bran became national icons. Americans and Canadians of European descent rediscovered whole grain porridge, bread, and pasta. Those of African heritage began to recover their traditional culture and way of eating, based on millet, sorghum, rice, and teff. Native Americans started to restore open pollinated blue corn and other strains of hardy maize. Following the introduction of the Food Guide Pyramid in the early 1990s, a whole-grain-based diet officially replaced the Basic Four food groups, an earlier model centered around meat and dairy food. Schools, hospitals, prisons, and other institutions began to change their menus and recipes in accord with the new guidelines. The impact on nation health was immediate and far-reaching. Deaths from heart disease dropped 40 percent and cancer peaked and slowly started to come down for the first time in a century. The U.S. government introduced national organic certification, and organic food quickly became the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Within a decade, organic food went mainstream, and today nearly half the country purchases some organic food regularly. Vegan emerged as a new dietary trend, and by 2016 nearly half the country was consciously reducing meat and other animal foods. The United Nation’s FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow concluded that beef production and other industrial animal food was the principal cause of global warming and climate change. Hamburgers, chicken wings, ice cream, and other animal products were directly responsible for creating 18% of greenhouse gases, more than all the CO2 equivalent produced by cars, planes, and other vehicles.
The end of the Cold War came during this period. After decades of hostility and competition, the United States and Soviet Union began to cooperate and embark on friendlier relations. Mirroring these social changes, which saw animal food start to be replaced with plant-based foods, was a change in the personal diets and lifestyles of world leaders. In the early 1980s, when President Reagan was diagnosed with colon cancer, his physician put him on a grain-based diet rather than treat hi with harmful radiation and chemotherapy. Red-meat was limited, and whole grain bread, muffins, cereals, and other products were prepared daily by the White House chef. Other influences included his daughter Patty, who was a vegetarian; his United Nations ambassador, Vernon Walters, a bachelor whose sister, Laura Masini, who had recovered from breast cancer with macrobiotics, served as his hostess at UN functions; and Blande Keith, wife of a former Republican congressman from Massachusetts, was also influential in introducing macrobiotics to the Reagan family. Over the years, many governors, senators, congressmen, and heads of state came to Michio Kushi or other macrobiotic teachers or counselors for advice, especially when cancer struck themselves or their families.
Reagan’s view of life changed from this time. He became more conciliatory toward the Soviet Union which he has denounced as the Evil Empire. Diet also played a key role in the life of Soviet Premier Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost and perestroika. As a child in famine-stricken Russian, he grew up on whole millet—a grain associated with balance, clarity, and creativity—and sunflower seeds. As the new millennium began, the nutritional axis shift from animal to plant foods was well under way. Two out of three medical schools reported offering courses in alternative and complementary medicine, and more Americans consulted holistic practitioners than physicians and other medical caregivers.
The Way to Peace
The traditional word for peace in the Far East—wa—is made up of the ideograms for “grain” and “mouth.” In the East, traditional societies knew that by eating whole grains, human beings naturally become peaceful. In the West, the symbol of the Iroquois Confederacy was a common eating bowl from which knives and blood (symbolic of animal food and war) were prohibited. This suggests that native peoples also recognized eating together created a common mind and spirit. As the foundation of the Great Law of Peace, a respect for nature and a balanced way of eating enabled the Six Nations to maintain the longest-enduring union of states in North America.
From the arrival of Columbus to Michio Kushi, from Deganawide and Hiawatha to Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, from George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower, from the Emancipation Proclamation to Dietary Goals for the United States, from Squanto and William Bradford to Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, amber waves of grain have played a pivotal role in shaping the life and destiny of Turtle Island, the native term for the continent. In the coming century, America will continue to serve as a fount of new ideas, practical inventions, and a universal spirit of brother- and sisterhood as the world consolidates into a planetary commonwealth.
Alex Jack is president of Planetary Health, Inc. and author or co-author of One Peaceful World, Amber Waves of Grain, and other books from which this article is excerpted.