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Dr Kellogg: The inventor of cornflakes was a lifelong campaigner against “stimulation”

In The Seven Year Itch (1955), the lead character Richard Sherman, in a desperate attempt to avoid temptation, goes to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. Boards advertise vegetable delights: “Prime Rib of Celery”, “Dandelion Salad With Mineral Oil Dressing”, or, “For A Real Taste Thrill, Try Our Spinach Loaf”. He plumps for the “soybean hamburger with French-fried soybeans”. Marilyn Monroe’s character is associated with more decadent tastes: “Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip into champagne?” she asks him. “It’s wild!”

In The Man Who Was Thursday, vegetarianism is absurd: the previous “Thursday”, organiser of “the great dynamite coup of Brighton”, is said to have died “through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric”. The secretary of the secret society “was a vegetarian, and he spoke earnestly of the projected murder over half a raw tomato and three quarters of a glass of tepid water.”

Why does vegetarian food get characterised as bland, unappetising and downright bonkers? The answer is that the vegetarian diet, in the West, was designed by some of its first gurus to be as dull as possible — vegetarianism was a form of temperance. In the 1820s, Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Connecticut, gained a following based on his belief that some foods, particularly animal products, led to carnal urges and vice. The solution was the “Graham diet”, based on whole wheat, fruits and vegetables. Dairy and eggs were allowed only if very fresh — one of Graham’s more reasonable concerns was food adulteration and impurities. The unleavened “Graham bread”, made with coarse wheatgerm and bran, has a living descendent, the Graham cracker, which would have appalled the minister: full of sugar and cinnamon (neither of which he permitted), and culturally entrenched as the main ingredient of the crust of an all-American cheesecake.

Louisa May Alcott’s father Amos, a Transcendentalist, was part of a short-lived attempt at a utopian vegan commune, a period she recounts in a short satirical memoir, Transcendental Wild Oats (Applewood Books, £7). Fruitlands, in Massachusetts, “blissfully basking in an imaginary future”, lasted seven months from May 1843. Animal welfare was certainly a concern — nothing was allowed “which has caused wrong or death to man or beast” — but its co-founder Charles Lane, like Graham, was also worried about “stimulating” foods which were morally injurious. In a dietary table he places not only meat but also “Fermented and Cooked Fruits, Vegetables and Roots” in the category of “Bad, for All Nature”. The Fruitlands diet was unleavened bread, porridge, raw vegetables and fruit, and water. All were unenlivened by flavourings, as “salt was considered a useless luxury and spice entirely forbidden”.

Their undoing was their insistence on farming without the labour of animals. Alcott describes the utopians “spading” the garden, accidentally sowing three different grains in one field, and not permitting manure to “profane the virgin soil”. She tartly comments that her mother’s “sense of the ludicrous supported her through many trying scenes”. Fruitlands eventually acquired an ox and a cow, but the farm had planted too late in the season. The group dissolved in December 1843. (The farm is now a museum.)

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