Isn't it about time, once again, for America to prohibit something imaginative like, say, ginger or pear peelings or coffee or something?

Prophets crying in the wilderness have always been among the dandiest heroes, and those who died more or less unheralded really ought to be remembered more than they are.

You recall Emma F. Angell Drake, the one whose particular enthusiasm was the ghastly danger of a pure young bride obliged to sleep with a disgusting male who smoked cigars. Breathing his breath as the couple slept, she necessarily would produce deformed children.

You might think, if you have relative misfortune to be sane, reasonable or educated past the third grade, that it would be easy enough to prove that the breath of a man who smoked a cigar at 7 p.m. was clear of pernicious fumes by 3 a.m., and that the fetus (Mrs. Drake's examples of tobacco damage always involved pregnant ladies) did not necessarily abort if the wife slept in the same bed (and thus breathed air in which her sleeping husband breathed out) with her husband.

Mrs. Drake also chronicled (in one fast-paced paragarph which is thought to be a jewel of American literature) the quick course from childhood to gallows of a little fellow whose custard had been flavored with a teaspoon of sherry by an ill-guided mother. One thing leads to another, you know, and it's a hard heart indeed that does not bleed or weep by the time Emma F. Angell Drake has the guy hanged at the end of the sentence.

Everyone remembers Sylvester Graham, fortunately, though few remember Emma, and this is because Graham invested the Graham cracker. Actually, he promoted the use of whole-wheat flour, which we all agree was a step in the right direction.But her vision went far beyond Graham crackers. You may think, as I do, that limits were set to his promising career as prophet by another of his central beliefs, that sexual intercourse is terribly bad for everyone. Knowing the infirmities of the lower classes, however, he did allow (in his theory) American males to have sex 12 times a year. Perfectly reasonable, and yet somehow Sylvester Graham's movement never really took off.

His great friend, Dr. William Andrus Alcott, held firm and probably correct views on American diet:

"No man has ever become an adulterer or a fornicator or an idolater eating plain wheat, corn, rye, potatoes, rice, peas, beans, turnips, apples."

But, he goes on, if you start adding poisons to these wholesome foods (such as "butter, lard, eggs, sugar, pepper, ginger, common salt") of course you can expect to die, or worse.

"Thousands and millions of every age," he pointed out, have rashly dumped a dollop of butter in the mashed potatoes or salted the beans or done some other wicked thing and were, needless to say, led "not only to vice and premature disease, but to that bourne whence no traveller returns." And good riddance, too.

Once again, you might think somebody would produce a fellow 106 years old, of blameless life, who on at least six distinct occasions put salt on the peanuts and once at some gingerbread, without going berserk, running amok or dropping dead.

But American prophets of the Drake-Graham-Alcott ilk have never cared much for fact, any more than thousands and millions of Americans sitting there ready to swallow any baloney handed out by any imbecile on a soapbox. These particular prophets flourished in the last century amongst us, but of course there has never been and never will be a shortage of loons, in any American century, who believe there is some one magical cure for human ills, and some one vice (whether tobacco, ginger, eggs, butter, beef, shrimp, whiskey or salt) on which all our woe may be blamed.

The grand feature of their quackery, needless to say, is that it never deals with tremendous sins (though pretending to deal with moral matters) such as arrogance, failure of reverence, etc., but always homes in on something like ginger or salt. This permits all manner of contented lunk-heads (who possibly are not doing so well on the 12-times-a-year sex bit) to suppose they're still batting at least .800 since they've stopped eating roast beef.

Absurdity has its built-in imbalance, so that after a few years of ginger (they reflect) that has killed thousands and millions, after all. Maybe it's the stars. So they go racing off to make some star-gazer rich, and they take pains not to fall off a cliff during Taurus (only in Capricorn) and feel much better about things.

You will say it makes no difference, surely, whether salvation lies in abstention from ginger or in visiting the neighborhood gypsy for advice about buying socks. We shall always, evidently, prefer nonsense to the truth that much of human life is quite beyond controlling, whether or not we eat an egg, and therefore it's foolish to worry about any particular nonsense that is in vogue.

But when some new fashion in salvation arrives -- "the peelings of a pear will kill you," let us say, or "the peelings of a pear will insure longevity and freedom from cancer," say, we must not suppose it will not be taken seriously, devoutly, by a few million good souls. It will be taken very seriously and if you make the mistake of laughing at it, you may run into spectacular trouble.

You recall Charles W. Fairbanks, surely, who was Theodore Roosevelt's vice president? He was a shoo-in for the Republican party's nominations to the presidency. But he misjudged the magic of the day and it ended his chances promptly:

A luncheon was held at his house in Indianapolis. Roosevelt, Fairbanks lots of local big shots were there. It was all duly reported in the papers, but the Indianapolis News ran an amusing little time that started Fairbanks' slide toward oblivion:

"Just before time to open the dining-room doors, a panic resulted from the discovery that the cocktails and been overlooked, the caterer having failed to provide them.

"Mrs. John N. Carey, who was assisting Mrs. Fairbanks, immediately phoned to the Columbia Club for 40 of the necessary openers. Mayor Brookwalter, standing by and realizing right well the seriousness of the situation, volunteered the use of his automobile and it was dispatched to the club. When guests filed into the dining room the amber Manhattans stood in long rows, one before each plate."

Ha. Sort of funny isn't it.

But, wait: a fearless publication of the day, called The Patriot Phalanx, devoted to the temperance cause, was shocked at the item in the News about the booze, and did some heady investigative work:

"The Phalanx has been in possession of the facts for several weeks," the Phalanx reported with understandable smugness, "but we did not wish to publish them until fully verified. We now know they are true, and believe the public is entitled to these facts."

The Patriot Phalanx halo was positively blinding, by this time, and the burden of righteousness so great that one must compliment the paper for managing to go on:

"Here many of the city ministers accepted the invitation to call [at Fairbanks' house] and pay respects to the president from 11 o'clock until noon. Then all were excluded but 'the select,' the invited guests to dinner . . . In its search for the facts, a Phalanx representative has interviewed several newspaper reporters, the fellows who know things, in fact more than they are allowed to publish.One of these said, 'Yes, there was liquor there and lots of it. Drank some myself. They served first the Manhattan cocktails, then sauterne wine, and wound up with claret. Saw President Roosevelt drink some. Now for goodness sake, don't use my name.'"

The Patriot Phalanx, as you have guessed, was not invited to cover this great luncheon as the large daily papers were, so the poor little Patriot Phalanx had to resort to interviewing reporters who had been present. But they kept on digging and found yet another reporter who had been there:

"The waiters did not allow any of the glasses to remain empty, but kept filling them up from the bottles."

The Patriot Phalanx also found a fellow who had been there, and he was asked what President Roosevelt drank:

"'Oh, he took it all.'"

The caterer, The Patriot Phalanx went on, said it was not their fault. It was the butler who forgot the cocktails and blamed the oversight on the caterer.

"There were some notable people at that dinner table," the Patriot Phalanx continued ominously, and it named them -- the governor of Indiana, a senator, a member of the House of Representatives, the mayor, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, an admiral, a former attorney, general of the United States and (God save us all) James Whitcomb Riley, the poet of childhood.

"As our eyes wander down the list," said The Patriot Phalanx, feeling it had earned the right to indulge in a dramatic effect or two, "we come upon a familiar name. Why, the Rev. D. R. Lucas. He was there. A minister of the Gospel. A lover of righteousness, a hater of inequity."

Even at this date, I cannot bring myself to reprint The Phalanx Patriot's heavy sarcasm about poor Preacher Lucas. But after patting itself on the back a few more times, and remarking a few more times that no other paper was bringing you this exclusive news, The Patriot Phalanx committed its story to the world.

Shortly The Patriot Phalanx was able to run quite a little column of reaction from the rest of America. The Washington Post had been obliged to take notice, in an editorial, "Politics and Grog," understood to have been hard-hitting, balanced, fair, and in the vanguard.The Louisville Courier-Journal opined on "The Cocktail and the Constitution." The New York Times, not wishing to be so sweeping, wrote on "The Cocktail and Politics" and never mind the Constitution. The St. Louis Republic offered a few powerful thoughts in "Cup and the Lip," in which it thundered, "Let a man be one thing or another." Bang.

Vice President Fairbanks was a Methodist. A drinking Methodist in the White House? Not in a pig's eye.

"The Methodist Church does not countenance the serving of liquor at any affair for any purpose," said a spokesman, and as Homer L. Castle, Prohibition leader from Pennsylvania put it, "if he cannot keep the vows of his own church, how can he be expected to keep other vows he would take if elected president?"

Well. Not to split hairs, the nation was rocked by the disclosure that Manhattans had been served in the vice president's house, and him a God-fearing Methodist, yet. Fairbanks had a snowball's chance, after that.

I am indebted to Julia Helms for documentation of The Patriot Phalanx crusade and the toppling of Fairbanks' career, since we were talking about it once and she sat down and got all kinds of documents from the Indiana Historical Society. As far as I know, they didn't boil James Whitcomb Riley in oil, but then he was a poet and what do you expect from bohemians like him.

But one of the many morals here is that if Manhattans happen to be the ultimate evil (as they were in Indiana in 1907) it does no good to argue that Fairbanks didn't drink his, or that he didn't get drunk, or that he drank so little he didn't even have any booze in his house and had to send out for it.

Never mind all that, America said. Here were Manhattans and here were you. Case finished. Career closed.

So, as I say, before you make any wisecrack about ginger or fortunetellers or other gimmicks and hucksters, you may wish to remember the course of American history has more than once -- virtually always -- been swayed by nothing more substantial than they.