The surprising roots of vegetarianism
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.)
We can also thank vegetarians for the invention of breakfast cereals, although the “granula” of the 1880s was a great deal more austere than the Coco-Pop. The creator of the cornflake, Dr John Harvey Kellogg, ran a sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. For Kellogg there were two chief causes of disease — bowel “autointoxication” from eating meat or spicy foods, and “solitary vice”, i.e. masturbation. The cure was bland diet, enemas and abstinence. His more commercially-minded brother Will Keith added sugar to the cornflake recipe and started the Kellogg company in 1906.
This is why in 1955 Richard Sherman thinks a “soybean sherbet” and a “sauerkraut juice on the rocks” will curb his lust. Steak is stereotyped as man-food and tofu as emasculating. Ron Swanson, on the sitcom Parks & Recreation, illustrates the manliness of meat-eating: “Fish [is] for sport only, not for meat. Fish meat is practically a vegetable.” His only exercise is “lovemaking and woodworking”. And I detected a tone of schadenfreude in some of the reporting of the recent discovery of a potentially cancer-causing “vegetarian gene”: see, vegetarianism can kill you! (The gene, found more often in populations with a long history of plant-based diets, relates to the processing of fatty acids, and will surely affect you whether or not you yourself are a vegetarian.)
What the 19th-century diets seem to have totally removed, making them unappetising, is umami, the savoury flavour, which is not confined to meat. You can get your umami in mushrooms, potatoes, or tomatoes, but it is particularly concentrated in cooked meat, and fermented, aged foods (mature cheese, aged hams, Marmite, Thai fish sauce). Historically vegetarian and low-meat cuisines of the world tend to use umami-rich ingredients and a wide range of spices, none of which Graham or Kellogg would have allowed. Japan, mostly pescetarian for hundreds of years, uses soy sauce, miso, seaweed and dried fermented fish. Traditional Buddhist temple food, extremely complex and artful and often totally vegan, uses mushrooms and many different kinds of soy sauce.
Some of the most crucial products for cooking are the savoury flavouring agents: the porcini in the risotto, the anchovy melted into the tomato sauce. Interestingly, glutamate, the molecule responsible for the umami flavour, is in today’s health-blog jargon an “excitotoxin”. An article on the website Honey Colony claims, in a remarkably Grahamite statement, that consuming MSG (which is just glutamate) is “just too much excitement for your brain (and your whole body)”.
I’m not a vegetarian — sometimes I want meat and sometimes I don’t. The other day my lunch was a mustardy salad of fennel, hard-boiled egg, potato and parsley, and my supper was lentils cooked in meat stock with garlic, chilli and cavolo nero, with crispy roast bits of sweet potato and a blob of plain yoghurt. Both were delicious because they contained umami: in the potato, the egg and the meat stock. This is the answer to eating well for any diet: use umami. Perhaps dietary boredom is the underlying reason why the Fruitlands utopia failed.