What Shredded Wheat Did for the Navy

The inventor of one of the first ready-to-eat breakfast cereals was also an accidental historian

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Henry D. Perky is best remembered as the inventor of Shredded Wheat, one of the first ready-to-eat cereals and a food that’s changed the way Americans think about breakfast. Perky was a devout vegetarian who believed that good health came from simple, wholesome foods. His whole-wheat biscuits were not intended exclusively as a breakfast cereal—the biscuits were a health food that could be paired with mushrooms, or even sardines. Despite claims that the Shredded Wheat Biscuit was “the Wonder of the Age,” a cure-all for societal and personal woes, the little edible brown pillows did not immediately take off.

In order to get grocery stores to stock Shredded Wheat, Perky began publishing booklets—millions of booklets. And by emphasizing the link between health food and industrial efficiency, he accomplished something else: Perky published the earliest images of American ships in the Spanish American war—in a cookbook.

His 1898 book, The Vital Question and Our Navy, featured recipes for shredded wheat along with an addendum about the U.S. Naval exercises in the Philippines and Cuba. The photos “have nothing to do with the rest of the book,” Andrew F. Smith, a culinary historian and author of Eating History, said at the recent Cookbook Conference. “As far as I know, they’re the first pictures that appear of these battle cruisers and destroyers that are public.” To think, health foods and war once went hand in hand.

U.S.S. Indiana/Photograph by F. H. Child/The Vital Question and Our Navy

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