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Vegetarianism : A Brief History

It is not so many years ago in this country that vegetarians were widely considered to be 'cranks' - the name chosen, with self deprecating humour, by the establishment that opened its doors in Carnaby Street at the start of the sixties, beating Henderson's by a few months to the title of the UK's first vegetarian restaurant. Well, a glance at famous vegetarians through history throws up such names as Pythagoras and Plato, Confucius, Kafka, Tolstoy, Einstein, Wagner, Gandhi and Leonardo da Vinci. If vegetarians are cranks, it would seem, they are cranks in pretty good company.

The first usage of the term 'vegetarian' noted in the Oxford English Dictionary was as recently as 1839 - the practice and philosophy of vegetarianism however is far older than that. Indeed some people have argued that mankind's diet originally consisted of berries, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, and that early man only turned to meat eating after climate change - another term with strikingly contemporary connotations - brought about massive changes to his habitat. Other scholars, it must be confessed, would dispute this point - what is certain though is that written sources show that vegetarianism was established and accepted by many of the peoples of ancient India at least as early as the ninth century BC. Of the major religions of India, Jainism has always advocated strict vegetarianism, while we find a slightly more compromised form in early Vedic, Hindu and Buddhist writings. Even today it is estimated that over 70% of the world's vegetarians live in India.

While the connections between vegetarianism and Indian religions are fairly common knowledge we are perhaps less aware of the prevalence of vegetarianism in ancient Greece. Nonetheless - and despite all those descriptions in the literature of Homeric feasts - here too it was firmly established by the 6th century BC. 'Abstinence from Beings with a Soul' was a principle rigorously adhered to by many - though by no means all - of the philosophical schools. Interestingly, even those who did not believe in vegetarianism usually held to the notion that during the early 'Golden Age' of mankind people were entirely non-violent, and meat eating unknown.

The Garden of Eden of Christianity and the other main Abrahamic religions was also commonly portrayed as a vegetarian paradise. The coming of Christianity and the collapse of the Classical World did however herald the disappearance of vegetarianism from the European landscape for the next thousand years or so. Though a handful of heretical sects, such as the Cathars, may have abstained from meat, mainstream vegetarianism did not rear its head again until the Renaissance, and then only sporadically.

All this was to change during the age of Romanticism and Radicalism that followed the revolution in France and by the first quarter of the nineteenth century vegetarianism had acquired such champions as the poet Shelley, author of 'A Vindication of Natural Diet' and a passionate and vehement advocate of the abstinence from meat (as well as atheism, free love and anything else that took his fancy). The movement gathered momentum as the century wore on, and the Vegetarian Society, the world's first, was formed in Ramsgate in 1847. It was soon followed by other societies throughout Europe, particularly Northern Europe, and the United States, where the American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850. These national societies were amalgamated under the aegis of the International Vegetarian Union in 1908.

Throughout the twentieth century, vegetarianism remained a respected but minority lifestyle; that changed again in the atmosphere of the 1960s which, perhaps because of a growing interest in Eastern religion and philosophy, saw an unprecedented upsurge in vegetarianism which since then has just grown and grown. It is difficult to imagine today a situation that was once painfully common, in which a vegetarian scans the menu in a restaurant and finds absolutely nothing they can eat.

The reasons why people choose to become vegetarians are probably as numerous as the numbers of vegetarians themselves, but they could be generally be grouped under three headings: Ethics, Health and the Environment.

Many people turn to vegetarianism because they have been sickened by some of the practices of intensive farming, the battery farming of chickens being a prime example. While for some organic and free range meat production provide an answer to their moral dilemmas, for others all exploitation of animals, no matter how well they are treated during their lifetimes, is quite simply wrong. This is the modern equivalent of the 'abstinence from beings with a soul' of the ancient Greeks mentioned earlier.

The principle underlying the practice of vegetarianism in ancient India was subtly different, though no less pertinent to vegetarians today. The guiding principle here was known as 'ahisma', roughly translated as the avoidance of doing harm or non-violence. It is the principle that lies behind much Hindu and Buddhist thought in many fields, not just diet. The 'satyagraha', or non-violent civil disobedience of Gandhi, for example, was firmly rooted in this principle, which aims ultimately at nothing less than breaking forever the world's cycle of violence and destruction.

With regards to vegetarianism and health, once again attitudes have been transformed from the days when it was widely held that 'it's your meat that makes you bonnie'! It is now known not only that a vegetarian diet is viable and capable of providing all the body's nutritional needs, but that it does so with lower levels of saturated fats and cholesterol and significantly higher levels of fibre and antioxidants. Studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index, lower blood pressure and less incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and certain forms of dementia and cancer. The better general health and greater longevity of southern relative to northern Europe has long been noted, even within a single country, such as Italy when we compare the population south of the Alps, brought up on olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables, with those of the north who are reliant more on butter and other animal based fats. That being the case in Italy, it is surely not difficult to see the health benefits a vegetarian diet might bring in Scotland - a country in which, as F Marian McNeill, the doyenne of Scottish cookery writers, once noted, the general population do not eat vegetables unless they are in soup.

Another reason for the upsurge in vegetarianism in the past few decades has been the rise in environmental concerns which have accompanied it. There are of course lies, damned lies and statistics: nonetheless reputable studies in recent years have suggested, among other things, that emissions from meat production account for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases; and that the same volume of crops could support ten times the number of people on a vegetarian diet than meat eaters. When a UN report concludes that the livestock sector is one of the top three contributors to the most serious environmental problems we face, little wonder many people are reassessing their dietary habits.

Before we get too serious about all this though, it is worth thinking about one other reason why so many people are now taking to vegetarianism: because the food is so delicious. Towards the beginning of the last century the noted vegetarian George Bernard Shaw received an invitation to the Vegetarian Society's annual dinner. He turned it down flat, claiming that the idea of two thousand people all crunching celery at the same time simply appalled him. Well, vegetarian cookery in this country today has come a long way from crunching celery, having embraced the most wonderful dishes from right around the globe. In fact vegetarianism today is so far from the hair shirted Puritanism of old that a recent customer survey at Henderson's revealed that less than 10% of the regulars were actually vegetarian - the rest just loved the food!