Meat vs. Potatoes

The real history of vegetarianism.

I read them all—every one of Tristram Stuart’s 446 voraciously researched, densely detailed, beautifully written pages about European vegetarianism since 1600—and at the end I still wasn’t convinced. Here’s the story as he tells it in The Bloodless Revolution: In the 17th century, a fundamental question about the relationship between ourselves and the other creatures of the earth broke out into passionate debate, a debate that swooped over and around and through the culture, rattling long-held European assumptions about the very nature of life. There was no single word adequate to capture the ideas that were bursting forth, until the term vegetarian emerged in the middle of the 19th century. And with that, the battle was over—not because meat-eating came to an end but because European culture made a home for this challenge to dietary norms, giving it a local habitation and a name. Whether or not this constituted a victory for animal-lovers is hard to say. As Stuart points out early on, when the concept of vegetarianism became domesticated, it turned into “a distinct movement that could easily be pigeon-holed, and ignored.” But people did start thinking differently about animals, human responsibilities, and the rights of living creatures, albeit rarely to the extreme sought by such groups as PETA. Stuart sums it up well: Nowadays, he says, “negotiating compassion with the desire to eat is customary.”

So, that was the bloodless revolution: a war of ideas that brought about genuine change. But bloodless? Yes, in the sense that philosophy was the chief battlefield. But consider another terrain—the dinner table. Eating animals never lost its central role in human appetite. A lot of intellectual shaking and shimmying was going on during the centuries Stuart discusses here, but at the most basic level—what’s for lunch?—the transformation not only wasn’t bloodless, it wasn’t a revolution.

If vegetarianism has settled comfortably into Western culture by now, it’s because the term vegetarian has become so vast and shapeless that it describes just about everybody who isn’t on the Atkins diet. To be sure, there are vegetarians who avoid all animal food. But most are willing to eat eggs, and many eat fish. Chicken is fine with some because hey, it isn’t beef. Hamburgers? Absolutely not—or maybe just once in a while. And turkey because it’s Thanksgiving, ham because it’s Easter, pepperoni because it’s pizza—what on earth is a vegetarian, anyway? No wonder Stuart never tries to define the term. A huge, wonderfully entertaining cast of dietary rebels parades through his chapters, but all we really know about the eating habits of these pagans, scientists, doctors, scholars, theologians, writers, philosophers, and crackpots is that most of them ate meat.

Pierre Gassendi, for instance, whose “Syntagma Philosophicum” Stuart calls “one of the most influential philosophical works of the seventeenth century,” believed to the very core of his being that we were never meant to eat animals. They had senses comparable to our own, he argued, and even possessed a mode of reasoning. “They emit their own peculiar cries,” he wrote to Descartes, “and employ them just as we do our vocal sounds.” Human teeth and digestion, plainly designed for a vegetable diet, seemed living proof that we were not born to feed our bodies by spilling animal blood. Nevertheless, Gassendi ate meat and had no intention of quitting. “I admit that if I were wise, I would abandon this food bit by bit, and nourish myself solely on the gifts on the earth,” he wrote. “I do not doubt that I would be happier for longer and more constantly in better health.” Translation: I’m wrong and I’m not about to change—a sentiment that adequately sums up the fate of most dietary advice throughout history.

To be sure, this is a book about ideas, not about what people had for dinner. It would be hard to come up with a volume this size if the subject were dinner, since cooking, unlike philosophy, was women’s work and tended to pass without notice. In this instance, however, there is an unusually good written record, for the leading proponents of vegetarianism were so notorious that their eating habits were of great interest, and people took careful note. Hence the fascinating leitmotif running through this narrative, as Stuart acknowledges over and over the disparity between the preaching and the practice: “Bohme may not have been vegetarian himself,” “Evelyn relished good dishes of flesh,” “Rousseau was not vegetarian,” “At the time of his death Newton owed L10 16s 4d to a butcher.” None of this distracts Stuart from his main theme, which is the powerful rise of vegetarianism. In the realm of pure thought, he certainly proves his case. But if the most ardent advocates of bloodless eating shrank back in dismay when the bean loaf came around, it seems doubtful that ordinary folk greeted it any more enthusiastically.

Perhaps the history of European vegetarianism is a history of wishful thinking. Stuart, of course, doesn’t see it that way. But he does focus on India as the inspiration for a great deal of Western philosophizing (the book’s original subtitle, jettisoned for the American edition, was “Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India”), and wishful thinking has long been a popular souvenir to bring home from the subcontinent. Early travelers to India returned with amazing tales of a population that lived entirely on vegetables and enjoyed perfect health. Nicolo Conti, a Venetian merchant, saw Brahmins who lived to the age of 300; travel writer Jean Baptiste Tavernier saw a man “whipped to death for shooting a peacock”; John Ovington, a cleric, saw Hindus living in a state of grace like Adam and Eve, practicing “Justice and Tenderness to Brutes, and all living Creatures.” True or not, says Stuart, these reports were influential, for they offered a vivid and dramatic challenge to a way of life that Westerners took for granted.

But what did those travelers really see? Stuart doesn’t go down that path; he’s interested in the long cultural reach of these travelogues, not their veracity. Still, it’s surprising how little attention he gives to the fact that vegetarianism in India was anything but monolithic. Contrary to what Stuart asserts, Buddha did not teach “that it was wrong for people to eat animals.” (His own last meal, famously, was a dish of pork.) Stuart quotes Europeans who described Syrian Christians in Kerala “abstaining from animal food,” just as the Hindus around them did; but he ignores a long tradition of beef-eating in that same Syrian Christian community. In truth, historians and archaeologists have traced meat-eating in the subcontinent back thousands of years; European travelers would have seen Indians consuming fish, fowl, mutton, and beef, as well as all-vegetable diets. But the West was most fascinated by tales of Indians who swore off all meat in the name of religion and nonviolence. That was the image of India that sold books, and that was the image that took root in Europe.

The travelers were right about one thing: In India, it was considered perfectly natural to live without meat. Vegetarianism wasn’t a novelty, a hardship, a form of rebellion or a sign that a screw was loose. It was simply a way of life, in a region where many ways of life coexisted. In Europe, by contrast, vegetarianism grew up as an aberration swathed in asceticism and self-denial. Nobody was supposed to live sumptuously on a vegetarian diet; the point was precisely the opposite. Radical preacher Roger Crab, who became a hermit in 1652, renounced meat with a fervor typical of the early vegetarians and decided to eat only “broth thickned with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnep leaves chop’t together, and grass.” Had he been lucky enough to be a devout Hindu instead of a heretical Christian, he might have been eating the glorious vegetarian cuisine developed in the South Indian temple town of Udipi, notably those big, airy crepes called dosas, filled with spicy potatoes and accompanied by a few spoonfuls of coconut chutney and a little cup of hot, soupy sambhar, laced with vegetables and tamarind. When vegetarianism is about what to eat, instead of what not to eat, life picks up considerably.

In recent decades, the West has finally started to catch on. Anna Thomas, Deborah Madison, and all the other gurus of contemporary vegetarian cooking have dismantled the bleak, defiant approach to food that for so long characterized meatless menus in Britain and America. Nut patties and boiled carrots have given way to a new culinary tradition that draws on nearly everything in the edible kingdom—vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, grains, herbs, and spices—and evokes flavors from cuisines around the world. The absence of meat is unremarkable, just as it should be.

And who chooses to eat this way? People who like food, whether or not they call themselves vegetarians. There was a bloodless revolution, all right, but it happened in the kitchen. The rest is commentary.