You can’t talk about granola without evoking the consumer we culturally associate the most with granola — i.e., the “Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching hippie,” who’s almost definitely vegan and dirty and living on a commune in Vermont. When I rhetorically asked my parents at breakfast recently about the origins of granola, my mom suggested, only somewhat jokingly, “Well, when all those hippies were up at Woodstock and tripping on drugs, they found some berries and acorns and thought, ‘hey, this is a great meal!'” (We then proceeded to have a fascinating family conversation about LSD, but I digress.)
But as it turns out, granola has its roots in a health food trend that predates Woodstock. The earliest iteration of granola was created in the mid 19th century with Dr. James Caleb Jackson, an abolitionist and journalist turned health nut in New York. After getting relief from health problems via a “water cure” at a spa, he became an enthusiastic advocate for spa treatments, eventually running his own spa at a therapeutic mineral spring. Along with these water treatments, he became a fierce advocate for strictly healthy diets — red meat, tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco were all discouraged at his spa, and he himself was a strict vegetarian.
As a substitute for all the heavy, greasy food people were used to eating for breakfast, he developed Granula, the first breakfast cereal. It wasn’t very close to our modern conception of granola, though — Granula was made from dense chunks of baked Graham (yes, like the crackers) flour that had to be soaked in milk overnight before it even became edible.
Fast forward about 15 years to the 1870s at Battle Creek Sanatarium in Michigan, which was at the time the best-known health resort in the country. Run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Henry Ford and many other famous guests would go to the swanky institution, which said it “combined the comforts of the home and the hotel with the medical advantages of the hospital.” There were “baths of every description, electricity in its different forms, medical gymnastics, and other rational agencies, with careful regulation of diet.”
The “careful regulation of diet” was a big part of Dr. Kellogg’s work. He worked to develop lines of health goods for his visitors, including “a cereal coffee substitute, various dextrinized and malted or predigested foods, and various toasted flaked cereals.” Predigested foods — how delicious. One of these products was his own version of Granula, which he made with oats instead of Graham flour. After Dr. Jackson sued him for infringing on his trademark, Kellogg changed the name to Granola and began advertising it in medical journals, with ads that claimed, “by a scientific process in its manufacture, [it] is given a taste of that resembling rich nuts.”
People must not have liked the taste of “rich nuts,” though, because Granola soon fell to the wayside when Dr. Kellogg’s flaked corn cereal — also known as Corn Flakes — took off at the turn of the century.
By the time granola was revived in the ’70s as part of the health food trend, it still didn’t taste that great on its own — one of the earliest manufacturers admitted to not liking the food, “But she recalls she once had a horse that ‘was real fond’ of it.” But people liked feeling healthy, and corporations quickly started to develop granola-type cereals to meet demand. They immediately took off — granola-type cereals increased in market share from less than 2 percent in January 1973 to about 14 percent in May 1974.
Nowadays, most grocery stores carry premade granola, but it’s usually loaded down with so much sugar that you might as well be eating Kellogg’s Froot Loops. That’s why I like making my own granola: I can control how sweet it is, you can easily adjust it to match your preferences, and it’s the simplest thing ever to make from home.
Granola has three basic staples: Dry ingredients, wet ingredients, and dried fruit (technically a dry ingredient, I know, calm down). This recipe uses 4.5 cups of dry ingredients (nuts, rolled oats, quinoa or seeds if you’re feeling fancy) to about 5/6 cup of wet ingredients, plus a cup of dried fruit. For the wet ingredients, I’d recommend a 1/3 cup of honey or maple syrup to make it stick, and then a half-cup of some other liquid. I used pumpkin butter because it’s what I had in my fridge today, but I’ve seen other recipes that use vegetable oil or applesauce. Or, you could just do 2/3 cup honey and be done with it. It’s up to you!
Here’s my current granola recipe of choice. It’s pretty basic, and it’s more savory than sweet, but I think Doctors Jackson and Kellogg would prefer it that way.
Pumpkin Spice Granola
(Recipe is mine)
- 3 cups instant rolled oats
- 1.5 cups almonds
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup pumpkin butter
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1 cup dried cranberries
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix the rolled oats, almonds, and cinnamon together.
Add the wet ingredients and stir until the dry ingredients are evenly coated.
Stir in the cup of cranberries.
Spread the granola evenly across the cookie sheet and put it in the oven for 30-40 minutes. Pull it out of the oven every 10 minutes to stir the granola.
When it’s done, resist the urge to immediately pop some in your mouth (I have the burnt tongue to prove that is a bad idea). Wait for it to cool, then eat it over a bowl of yogurt or milk (or eat it plain!). Store it in an airtight container.
(So, what do you guys think so far? Do you want less history? More history? More anecdotes? Next week I’m probably going to talk about how the myth of carrots was created to fight Nazis [no, seriously], so stay tuned!)