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Vegetarianism in the USA: A Rocky Road

by Karen and Michael Iacobbo

Vegetarians have a history--a long history!

No, we did not emerge out of the '60s counterculture. We existed in this land even before there was a United States. Since at least the pre-Revolutionary War era, vegetarians have survived here among meat-eating neighbors, friends and relatives. We have traveled a vast distance since then--so far that veganism is now the standard by which we measure our progress. Today vegan entrees are available in supermarket chain stores, college cafeterias and on cruise ships.

Progress had been made, for sure, but problems remain.

Vegetarians were once warned that without meat in their diets they would die or at least grow devastatingly weak. The vegetarian movement, which existed unofficially since 1817 and officially began with the establishment of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850, worked hard to educate the public and most allopathic physicians. The advocates of vegetarianism made their case using anecdotal evidence, examples from other cultures, history and the Bible. They also presented themselves as examples of the benefits of avoiding meat.

Today vegetarians are still sometimes offered warnings about the dangers of eschewing meat, while vegans are also warned not to reject cows' milk and hens' eggs. Whether dangers to health from eating exclusively from the plant kingdom are real is debated today, just as vegetarianism as an alleged cause of weakness and death was in the 19th century.

Yet advocates of vegetarianism, especially Sylvester Graham, were relentless in their attempts to teach Americans about the benefits of eating whole grains and vegetables at a time when these foods were considered indigestible at best and poisonous at worst. Slowly over several decades, America began to understand and accept the message that foods of the plant kingdom were beneficial to health, even if most people did not entirely stop eating meat. By the late 19th century, the number of vegetarians apparently had increased and the "eat meat or die" myth was on its way to the cemetery.

Will today's warning that "vegans have to be careful" follow? That might happen one day, a testament to the hard work of advocates of vegetarianism and veganism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their work was never easy. Vegetarianism experienced a roller coaster ride through the 20th century.

Early in the century, during the time known to historians as the Progressive Era, vegetarianism was fast gaining acceptance among the masses. Although probably only a substantial minority practiced vegetarianism, newspapers and magazines featured stories about its rise and predicted it would continue. Even the newly established U.S. Department of Agriculture was interested in the use of plant protein to feed the burgeoning population of Americans. Perhaps more surprisingly, fruitarianism seems to have been of interest to a small but significant number of people.

Then, after a couple of decades of increasing acceptance, vegetarianism took a dive. Although science was beginning to catch up to the vegetarian movement in its realization that meat was not necessary in the human diet, the age of public relations had begun. The increasingly influential meat and dairy industries, already advertisers, grew sophisticated in their approach to consumers. Slowly, ads for meat and milk became ubiquitous. Vegetarians had no advertising budget.

Through those decades the federal government decreased its food groups; that is, meat and milk were given more prominent positions as required food in federal nutrition guidelines widely disseminated to school and nutritionists and available in grocery stores and doctors' offices. Meanwhile, most of the medical community seemed to have fallen asleep regarding early 20th century nutritional findings that showed human beings need not eat meat to thrive.

Despite food rations and Victory Gardens, by World War II the American meat-and-potatoes culture was firmly entrenched. The ground vegetarianism had gained at the start of the century was largely lost. By the 1950s the eating of steak, bacon and chicken came to be perceived as almost a patriotic act, right up there with motherhood and military service.

Vegetarianism still existed, but its golden age was over. Not until the counterculture of the 1960s did it again see the light of day. Through the efforts of some hippies and other enthusiastic vegetarians and vegans, the current wave began.

Today vegetarians, depending on which area of the nation they inhabit, feel confident that vegetarianism and even veganism are acceptable or gaining acceptance. Some even believe this will one day be a vegetarian nation. Other vegetarians, those who feel they are the only ones on their blocks or in their small towns, are not as optimistic.

One must look back at the past and ask: Are vegetarianism and veganism as a philosophy and way of life truly gaining acceptance, or is it just that people now perceive vegetarian and vegan food as another dinner choice?

Vegetarian frozen foods, such as soy-based burgers and meatballs, have become big business. For better or worse, vegetarianism is approaching the stage of enculturation. But will it really be vegetarianism?

For two centuries vegetarians have defined vegetarianism. This is beginning to change. Today when someone says "I am a vegetarian" it could mean that person eats chicken and fish but not beef and pork. Numerous recent articles in newspapers and magazines have referred to "pesco-vegetarians" and "pollo-vegetarians." Such labels dilute the meaning of vegetarianism and cause confusion, as does the misuse of the word "vegetarian." For example, in August of this year at a national chain restaurant the menu board read "vegetarian" soup, yet the waitress said it was made with chicken broth.

If history repeats, this supposed age of acceptance of vegetarianism could come crashing to an end.

Or it might just usher in a lasting golden age. Only a prophet can tell.

Meanwhile, factors Americans face today, such as erratic weather patterns, water shortages and rolling electricity blackouts, and those they will face in the near future, especially genetically engineered "vegetarian" foods containing the DNA of animals, will likely have a major effect on the next phase of vegetarian history.

Karen and Michael Iacobbo write and lecture on vegetarianism in America. They are the authors of an upcoming book about vegetarian history.