From the Homestead Kitchen: C.W. Post, Sanitariums, and Grape-Nuts Cereal

by Gennie Truelock

I’m going to say this upfront; I love cold cereal. Growing up with two working parents, it was the weekday go-to breakfast staple. Heartier breakfast fare like pancakes, eggs, and bacon were meant for Sunday mornings in my household. As a young working college student living on my own for the first time, cereal was a must-have item in the pantry. It was cheap, easy to prepare, and could be eaten at any hour of the day. Even today, I always have a box or two in the cupboard for when I want an easy snack, a quick bite in the morning, or when I don’t want to make any effort to prepare dinner. A box of cereal on the shelf has always been there for me, which is why when I came across a little pamphlet titled 101 Prize Recipes in the Museum’s collection featuring Grape-Nuts cereal as an ingredient in each and every recipe, I was intrigued.

Cover of 101 Prize Recipes published by the Postum Company, Inc., 1928. From the Homestead Museum collection.

I have only eaten Grape-Nuts cereal cold and had never thought to try and cook with it. The recipes found in this pamphlet, published by Postum Company, Inc., in 1928 opened my eyes to what could be done with Grape-Nuts as an ingredient. What really blew me away however, was the amount of money that the top four prize-winning contributors earned for their recipes: 4th place – $250, 3rd place – $500, 2nd place – $750, and 1st place – $1000. This seemed like rather substantial sums of money for the 1920s! While Grape-Nuts benefited the lives of the four prizewinners in 1928, it also made a lasting impact on American society by changing the way we ate breakfast at the dawn of the 20th century.

Breakfast lamb chops, anyone?

Prior to the Victorian era (1837-1901), in most American homes, the morning meal was a varied one. In some places, breakfast may have been comprised of leftovers from the previous evening’s meal, or perhaps a cooked porridge, or even a simple corncake. However, during the 1800s, with the growth of the middle and upper classes, breakfast began to transform from a meal that provided basic sustenance to a more elaborate affair. According to Chris Kimball, former host of America’s Test Kitchen, “The Victorian breakfast reflected the birth of the middle class, when many wealthier women had leisure time and disposable income was growing… Menus could be extensive and include a wide array of foods including hot cereal, eggs, fish, meat, breads, and fruit. A formal Victorian breakfast would be equivalent to brunch today, with items such as orange juice, Poached Eggs with Asparagus Tips, toast, lamb chops, green peas, English muffins, and crackers with Brie or Roquefort to finish with coffee.”

As breakfast became more carbo-loaded and meat-laden, many were beginning to see issues with consuming a diet of this type. Soon, the word, dyspepsia (indigestion) was appearing everywhere. As historian Abigail Carroll explained in the podcast Gastropod, “Magazines and newspapers [just overflowed] with rhetoric about this dyspeptic condition and what to do about it.” As concerns over diet increased, the amount of time many had to consume their morning meal lessened. With the arrival of the Second Industrial Revolution, more people were working outside their homes and in offices, shops, and factories that had set hours of operation. Many more people started to eat before going to work, and since breakfast was typically a warm, prepared meal, this meant a person would need to rise earlier to cook and consume their meal before heading out the door to begin their workday.

Americans needed a healthier, faster option for their morning meal. What they ended up getting was breakfast in a box.

Sanitariums, health regimens, and “Biologic Living”

In 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was established in Battle Creek, Michigan. Among its many practices, was a focus on diet and health. In 1866, the church opened the Western Health Reform Institute and ten years later turned over the running of the enterprise to one of their most-promising adherents, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg ran the institute, later known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium, on a concept that he termed “Biologic Living.” He believed that there was a relationship between the “body and morality,” and promoted abstaining from sex, masturbation, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. He also sought to introduce patients at the “San,” as the facility came to be known, to a variety of new therapies and exercises including: hydrotherapy, phototherapy, thermotherapy, electrotherapy, yogurt enemas, calisthenics, and mechanotherapy (the original term for therapeutic massage). However, it was his viewpoints on food, digestion, and a proper diet that would forever change American breakfast tables. At the San, a bland, strictly vegetarian diet filled with vegetables, nuts, and whole grains was adhered to. Every morning, patients were served a crumbled up, twice-baked mixture made of wheat, oats, and cornmeal served in milk to soften it. Kellogg’s younger brother Will Keith, who oversaw the making of the mixture in the kitchen among his many other job duties at the San, approached John with an idea to sell the cereal. John refused.

But everything was soon about to change.

In 1891, a young new patient arrived. He had been suffering from gastrointestinal issues and recently collapsed from what was then called a “nervous breakdown,” his second in six years. He had been struggling after ongoing unsuccessful attempts at various inventions and business ventures including stationary made out of cottonseed hulls, suspenders that adjusted to a person’s movements, and a real estate project in Texas had all failed. He couldn’t afford to pay for his treatments at the San, which ran approximately $60 a month (that is the spending equivalent of over $1,700 today), but instead of turning him away, he was given the option to cover his costs by working in the kitchen. That patient was Charles William Post.

When Post eventually left the San, it seems he took with him many ideas about healthy living, as well as the recipe for the breakfast cereal that was served to the patients.

Cereal arrives on the American breakfast table

Post remained in Battle Creek and began to utilize the lessons he learned while at the San. With $78 to invest in his new endeavor, Post purchased equipment and set up a manufacturing enterprise in an old barn. He first began tinkering with a recipe for a caffeine-free alternative to coffee based on a similar grain-based drink that was available to patients at the San. He landed on a formula which he named Postum and began selling it commercially in 1895. After the initial success of this beverage, he began to develop a new product idea: breakfast cereal. Post also decided to add something to his cereal that Kellogg never would, sugar. Adding grape sugar to his recipe, he baked the mixture and ground the results in a coffee grinder to create small crunchy nuggets. He named his new product Grape-Nuts and began to sell it on the ever-growing national markets in 1897.

How Grape-Nuts got their name! Advertisement for Grape-Nuts from the Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1898.
Breakfast made easy and good for you, too. Advertisement for Grape-Nuts from the Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1898.

By 1899, sales for Grape-Nuts were enormous. This was due, in large part to the marketing efforts of Post, who touted not only the simplicity of breakfast in a box, but also the “health benefits” that he claimed the product could provide.

Post made ever-increasing claims about the health benefits of Grape-Nuts. Not only could it aid digestion, he eventually claimed it could cure anything from appendicitis to impotence. From the Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1899.
An advertisement purporting not only the demand for Grape-Nuts across the United States, but how it helps with digestion. From the Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1899.

After seeing the astounding success of Grape-Nuts nationally, many other companies followed suit, even setting up shop in Battle Creek. By 1900, over 100 companies were making cereal in the area and shipping their products all over the US. In 1906, Will Keith Kellogg, much to the chagrin of his brother, joined the fray by making and marketing a new type of cereal, the toasted corn flake. However, the invention of that and the legal battles that ensued between the two brothers might need to be the topic of another blog post.

By the early 1900s, Post was a millionaire and his breakfast cereals were frequently appearing in homes across the US. However, all would not remain well for him. The chronically ill Post, who suffered bouts of depression as well as a host of other physical ailments, took his own life at the age of 59, in 1914. His only child, Marjorie Merriweather Post took over the running of the Postum Cereal Company, eventually expanding it through the acquisition of multiple other American food companies including Jell-O, Baker’s Chocolate, and Maxwell House. But it was the purchase of the then frozen foods concern, General Foods Company from Clarence Birdseye, that transformed the business into the General Foods Corporation in 1929. You can read more about the growth of the General Foods Corporation in this previous post.

News regarding the death of C.W. Post . From the San Bernardino County Sun, May 10, 1914.

While Post never got to see the publishing of the 101 Prize Recipes pamphlet, I do feel it captured his marketing sensibilities. In many early advertising campaigns for Grape-Nuts, he touted the versatility of the product, often including suggestions from “consumers” for alternative ways to prepare and eat it.

It looks the the company was always interested in finding new ways to use Grape-Nuts. From the Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1899.
Not only could Grape-Nuts be used for sweet dishes, here is a suggestions for it’s use in a savory hash recipe too. From the Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1898.

With that in thought in mind, I decided I would try and make two very different recipes from the pamphlet. One was the $1000 prizewinning recipe, Grape-Nuts Omelet California, and because I enjoy baking, I also made the Grape-Nuts Brown Betty.

Here are the recipes:

Do you think it will taste like its worth a $1000? The Grape-Nuts Omelet California recipe from 101 Prize Recipes, published by the Postum Company, Inc., 1928. From the Homestead Museum collection.
Not a cash prize winner but it sounded like it put Grape-Nuts to good use. The Grape-Nuts Brown Betty with Grandmother’s Pudding Sauce recipe from 101 Prize Recipes, published by the Postum Company, Inc., 1928. From the Homestead Museum collection.

Here are how mine turned out.

The Grape-Nuts Omelet California, how can I describe it? It was…interesting.
Grape-Nuts Brown Betty with Grandmother’s Pudding Sauce. That sauce was delicious!

So what did I think of the recipes from the pamphlet? The prize-winning omelet was not such a winner in my book. Overall, the taste was fine, a bit salty. I feel like the Grape-Nuts (which there is a lot of in this dish) are meant to mimic a meat-like texture in the omelet. Which is fine, but a bit weird as you are chewing it. It isn’t the worst thing that I have eaten, but not something I would go out of my way to replicate again.

The Brown Betty was pretty darn good. The flavor reminded me of a Dutch apple pie with a lemony caramel sauce. Next time instead of slicing the apples thin on a mandolin, I think I would chop them into chunks. The thin apple slices are fine, but to balance out the crunchy Grape-Nuts topping, I wanted something with a little more heft underneath. The pudding sauce was delicious! It would be a tasty topping for ice cream, bread pudding, banana cream pie, you name it! The lemon flavor is bright and a surprising twist to the sauce. It was my favorite recipe out of these items and one that is a keeper in my book.

I’d love to hear what you think! If you try any of this recipes, let us know by tagging us @homesteadmuseum or dropping us a line in the comments below.

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