In 1898, a young doctor from Michigan removed a batch of disfigured granola from his oven. Flat, he observed. His failed culinary attempt would soon become a medical revolution. Wheat berry, flaked and flattened, was an antidote before it became a breakfast cereal.
Dr. J.H. Kellogg was a chief physician at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, one of many medical treatment centers in the late 19th century governed by the laws of Seventh-day Adventism. Adventist practitioners like Kellogg enforced a health plan intended to support a clean lifestyle, encouraging adherence to the kosher diet taken from Leviticus Eleven. Spiritual purity was achieved, in part, by replacing sausage with cereal, removing from the body the residues of creatures regarded as dirty. Not pure. Not clean.
But before it was introduced to the canon of American breakfast foods, the cereal was prescribed as an anti-aphrodisiac. A believer that onanism was the most dangerous threat to the wellbeing of humanity, Dr. J.H. Kellogg developed a health regimen that endorsed strictly bland foods to prevent masturbation. (When that venture was inevitably found to be futile, he turned to mutilation of the genitals, applying phenol to the clitoris.) Corn Flakes, the Great American Boner Killer.
There’s no mention of this on the Kellogg’s ® website. Just a picture of a young boy, his cheeks painted in rose, lifting a silver spoon to his mouth, smiling a silver gap-toothed smile, presumably not thinking of masturbation.
Although it is recognized as the fifth-largest worldwide Christian communion, most people know little about Seventh-day Adventism. To those of my parents’ generation, it is Waco; it is cult leader David Koresh waving an M16 in the shootout that followed his refusal to evacuate the compound. It is sharp-eyed men pressing women down against heavy walls and locked doors in the name of the Lord. It is incest. It is Cult. To those of my generation, it is a mystery. It’s just a branch of Protestantism, I say, to keep it simple. Clean.
Seventh-day Adventism arose from the Millerite Movement. In 1822, a successful Baptist farmer from rural New York named William Miller announced that, after collecting clues hidden in the Prophecies of Daniel, he had calculated the exact date of the Second Coming. For 21 years, Miller and his followers gathered to pray in preparation for the Cleansing of the Sanctuary. They dreamt of thick hot flames that rolled over the fields like red oceans. They prayed for the melting of trees, the exclamatory bursts of buildings turning fast to ash, the popping sound a sin-filled body might make when consumed by fire. They saw their souls, rising like tiny soap bubbles, ascending to Heaven’s Kingdom. For twenty-one years, they waited for death.
It didn’t come. When Miller and his followers sold their possessions and marched to the tops of hills and mountains, breathlessly awaiting their white-robed ascension in the black night, nothing happened. Not in 1843, the year Miller had first predicted. Not six months later, when his second prediction of the Second Coming again fell through. After what was later referred to as The Great Disappointment, many abandoned Millerism. Others, however, clung to the faith. Some believed that Jesus would come soon, acknowledging that the date was simply unpredictable; others claimed that The Second Coming had indeed happened, but was a heavenly event and thus invisible to Earth-bound humans. These remnants of Millerism would eventually give rise to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. J.H. Kellogg’s church. My mom’s church. In some ways, my own.
I sit at the kitchen table, shoveling dripping spoonfuls of Corn Flakes into my mouth before church on Saturday. I am five, and there is very little I know about organized religion, except that once a week I am forced to wear black nylon tights that make my inner thighs itch uncontrollably.
Church is a dark room filled with organ music. A life-sized statue of Jesus Christ pinned to a cross is behind the pulpit, his face contorted and his eyes turned upwards, looking toward the stained glass windows that split the sky to squares of burnt orange and deep violet. When the sermon has too many words I don’t know, I like to look at him, study his face staring in anguish at the sky. I feel comfortable doing this; with his eyes fixated upward he can’t watch me watching him.
In the classroom, Anna lets me arrange Jesus and his disciples on the felt board. She speaks in a kind voice, and doesn’t mind that I take each character down to examine before putting it up on the board, stroking the felt with my small soft hands. One time, I place a character from the wrong Bible chapter on the board, and someone else is called up to the front of the room to correct my mistake.
During the children’s sermon, a balding man tells the story of Abraham in a swelling oration: And then God instructed Abraham to take his eldest son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah, where he was to build an altar upon which Isaac would be sacrificed, he said. I freeze, feet wrapped tight in itchy black nylon stop swinging in mid-air. I cannot hear Mom’s breath, cannot feel her warm body through her thick black pea coat. And so Abraham obeyed His command, binding his son with rope and laying him upon the altar he had built. Abraham raised his hand, holding the knife high over Isaac’s body…
In the end, God reprieved Abraham, seeing that he loved and feared Him enough to sacrifice Isaac. Instead, God gave him an old ram to sacrifice. Abraham brought the knife down, slicing through a web of soft tissue and nerves running along the delicate neck. How could he do it, I wonder? Watching the widening pupils, hearing the confused bleating, seeing the muscles jump to life before going limp—how could he do it and not think of his son?
As we drive home, Mom turns on the classical station. I try to measure her breath from where I sit in the back, strapped tight into my car seat. My tights itch, and I grab at them, try to yank them off. Would you do it? I ask her. If God asked you to? Would you do it?
Mom tells me she was a “dark” child. Somber, intense, with curious eyes round as European plums. A quiet, stringy girl with clunky sandals and an awe for God: one part love, one part fear. She tells me the stories born inside the one-story house that faced slightly away from the street. How her home was carefully decorated with history: black-and-white photographs of her Portuguese family hung on the wall. On the shelf, porcelain Jesuses peeked out from behind kitschy beach souvenirs. She tells me of the strong-willed Adventist women who loved her with ferocity: her mother, my Grammy Ruth, sewing her into a lacey stillness in the living room with hands strong and nimble from sewing the clothes of squirming girls by day and the flesh of squirming patients by night. How she would one day chase my mother and aunt around and around the kitchen table with a Mulberry branch. Around and around, they ran from her, giggling, their untouched bare feet barely touching the cold tile. They took flight from the branch, from their mother’s overworked fingers, from the things that weren’t yet understandable, but to them assumed a spectacular hilarity—all the porcelain Christs, looking on in mild amusement.
Mom tells me of my Great Grandma Lima, her thin-boned grandmother who took care of her when Grammy Ruth was working at the hospital. A fierce worrier and protector, she would carefully safety-pin the thin cotton sheets to Mom’s bed each night to ensure she didn’t tumble out in the darkness. Great Grandma Lima, with big bulging eyes that threatened to see more than their subject wanted to reveal. She was devout, disapproving of her daughter’s marriage to a non-Adventist. And then she was solitary, refusing to leave the house, her bulging eyes maintaining an incandescent glow of the indoors.
I come from a line of women who worried for the world.
Mom tells me of the noise that comes with the worrying. She laughs and sings the angst-ridden song she wrote at thirteen about preparing for the Second Coming. But I see it sometimes, without the laughter—I see in her the residues of worrying over something much greater than herself. She tells me to always be prepared for anything, to keep canned food on my shelves in case of a natural disaster. To believe in the connecting force of family love, if anything ever should happen. Over dinner, she tells me, you just never know. She worries for herself and for us and for the world, a deep and shocking empathy that permeates all her mind touches: the death of a small rabbit outside, an earthquake millions of miles away.
She also tells me of the quiet that comes with worship on the Saturday, the seventh day. On these Saturdays, her family, like many practicing Adventists, refrained from secular work and leisure activities. Mom began to spend the Sabbath outdoors, where she found herself solitary and full. Alone, she felt love. She felt God in the trees and in the grass and in the quiet.
In 1901, Dr. J.H. Kellogg stood before the Annual General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists and uttered the statements that would set him on the path to being ‘disfellowshipped’ by the Church for infidel sentiments that crept a little too close to pantheism:
“Some of you have watched a flower winding up a string, a morning glory winding around a string. Perhaps you have seen a vine climbing up a lattice, and you have watched the end coming out, and turning in, back and forth, between the interstices of the lattice. How does the vine know what to do? There is an intelligence that is present in the plant, in all vegetation…”
God is everywhere. In everything. There is God in my cereal, too.
In 1902, Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium caught fire. Engulfed by thunderous flames, it was razed to the ground. Ellen G. White, one of the sanitarium’s founders and Seventh-day Adventist leader, advised him not to rebuild it.
We leave the church when I am still a child irritated by nylon tights. My mom becomes disturbed when my sister, now eight, describes the video she has seen in religious education class depicting the horrors of people cutting babies out of pregnant stomachs. She is afraid, and my mom doesn’t want the fear for us. It shouldn’t be about the fear, she says.
On Saturday mornings, we sit on the couch with her, our heads rested against her arms, as she chooses stories from the Bible to read to us. Pressed against her in my cotton nightgown, it’s easy to feel the warmth of her body.
Mom left Seventh-day Adventism, but I can’t say that it ever left her fully. Maybe, in some ways, it hasn’t left me either.
It must feel strange to finally walk away from something, knowing that there’s a chance you can never fully detach from what it has given to you. Religion gave my mom the stillness of worship, a quiet reflectiveness for which she tells us she’s thankful. Now, on Saturday mornings, she sits in the garden writing poetry with a cup of black coffee, listening for God in the chirping of sparrows, the sloping branch of our cherry tree, the twisting clouds above.
Religion gave her the deep cavernous capacity to worry for the world. A twisting cloud can become, in a moment’s time, a fleeting concern. A daughter, forgetting to call home one night, ends up with seventeen missed calls.
Sometimes, too, the daughter sees a river and thinks immediately of floods. She laughs it off, tells a friend it’s just the product of being an “apoca-baby.” And sometimes, too, the daughter sees a river and thinks of God, that God is water and nature and Mother Earth and Mothers. I think of my great grandmother and my grandmother, of all of my Portuguese relatives smiling in their frames, of Anna and her felt board, of the nylon tights that still make me itch. They all are with me, in me; perhaps this is my own disjointed pantheism.
In every solid object—in even a simple bland Corn Flake—there is a buzzing whirlwind of recycled atoms fumbling before clinging, a pulsing and incomprehensible narrative. To force comprehension, we read from left to right. We force the quivering into stillness to avoid discontinuity, to join the disjointed. But if you look closely enough, you see the fumbling before the cohesion. We are not continuous; we are fragmented and disjointed and wonderful at the core. Listen closely, and you hear the shifting mosaic of history, perhaps your own, singing out its garbled hymn.
ABBEY PERREAULT B’16 no longer eats Corn Flakes.