The Cookbook That Created Breakfast Cereal And Preserved Naval History

“How are you so satisfied all the time, Abed? I mean, don’t you ever want anything more out of life than cereal?” —Jeff, “Community”

In A Nutshell

In order to promote his new product, Shredded Wheat, Henry Perky published a cookbook that touted the benefits of his wheat biscuits, shared recipes for including them in every meal of the day, and claimed that they were the only medicine anyone would ever need. At the end of the cookbook, he also published a supplement on the Navy, along with more than 30 photos of American battleships, cruisers, and gunboats. They’re the earliest public photos of the ships we have . . . and they’re at the back of a cookbook for Shredded Wheat.

The Whole Bushel

Henry Perky invented Shredded Wheat. Perhaps not surprisingly—at least, for anyone who’s ever tried Shredded Wheat—it wasn’t an overnight success. It needed a little bit of help, and in order to get people to open up their kitchen cabinets for his little wheat biscuits, he wrote a cookbook.

It was a weird cookbook.

Perky was a huge supporter of a vegetarian lifestyle, and he was extremely outspoken about just how important it was to eat healthy. In 1898, he released a book called A Vital Question and Our Navy, and it’s just as strange as it sounds.

While we think of Shredded Wheat today as a breakfast cereal, he intended it for rather more prolific use in the kitchen. Some of his Shredded Wheat recipes include the Wheat-Shred Drink, which was a hot drink made of a biscuit, some barley, and sugar. There’s a coffee version, too, and he commends the appearance of the dinner table laden with dishes made of things like Shredded Wheat and fish balls, or mushrooms and gravy, or biscuit-based puddings.

He also has some things to say on health in general. Breathing is important, he states in one complete section, and specifies that in order to be healthy, you should make sure your daily routine includes breathing lots and lots of fresh oxygen. Oxygen, combined with a diet heavy in Shredded Wheat, was his recipe for success.

And some of the recipes sound amazing. He includes directions for things like Wheat-Shred Drink Jelly, Sardine Sandwiches (with Shredded Wheat), and Shredded Wheat with Tomato Sauce.

And well before most companies were considering listing their ingredients on packaging, much less including nutritional information, he was supplying customers with precisely that. He also claimed that eating Shredded Wheat was something of a cure-all, and those who ate it wouldn’t need any kind of medicine anymore—the biscuits were medicine enough.

But the really bizarre part is his Our Navy supplement.

At the end of the cookbook is an entire section devoted to the Navy and to war. War, he says, regardless of whether it’s just or not, is an unnatural state of being. When people are healthy and properly nourished, there’s no need and no urge to go to war, and he says that’s the state that we should naturally exist in. He includes pages and pages of quotes to back up his theories, and then he tosses in some pictures of naval battleships.

The pictures include the USS Maine and her crew, the USS New York, the USS Indiana . . . there are more than 30 pictures of late-19th-century battleships and gunboats, along with descriptions of each boat and photos of their crews and torpedoes. He even includes the cost of each, and stats like dimensions, top speed, weapons, and how many crew were required.

So far, they’re the first publicly available photographs of US naval ships that we’ve found. Millions of copies of the cookbook and its photos were printed and distributed; it was, of course, a success, and Shredded Wheat led the way for the breakfast cereal industry, even if not at every meal. It also gives us our earliest public photos of American battleships and a look into naval history.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit via Hathi Trust Digital Library
Smithsonian: What Shredded Wheat Did for the Navy
The Vital Question and Our Navy, by Henry Perky (full book, including naval photos)