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Marta Zaraska’s book, Meathooked, taps into the contradictory American obsession with meat: we incessantly crave its smoky aromas and juicy interiors, yet we are aware of its harmful nature to our bodies and the environment. If these detrimental effects are common knowledge, then why is the number of vegetarians in society still so low? According to Gallup, the percentage of vegetarians in the United States has not significantly altered since the 1940s, only rising from around 2 percent in 1943 to 2.4 percent in the present. Zaraska shared some of her insights as to why there has historically been such a lack of vegetarians in society, and how the current culinary resurgence of vegetarianism is beginning to change those ideas.

By Marta Zaraska

Imagine yourself in one of New York’s restaurants circa 1880. You are a vegetarian. You peak at the meatless section of the menu and see potatoes, cabbage, lentil soup – nothing really to entice your senses. If one thing damaged the reputation of vegetarianism in nineteenth-century America and the United Kingdom, curbing the spread of the newly budding movement, it was bad cooking.

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In the United Kingdom, the first vegetarian restaurants opened as far back as the 1850s (in Manchester), and by 1886, there were as many as twelve such establishments in London. However, they didn’t offer much to satisfy anyone’s inner gourmet. Take how the journal Today described the food of the day in one of London’s vegetarian restaurants: “half cold soup, sodden and sloppy cabbage, ill-boiled potatoes, a horribly starchy, watery mixture.” Given this description, it is no wonder that customers possessed “a hungry, unsatisfied, uncomfortable look about them,” as one visitor remarked.

In the United States, similar sentiments were present. Although the first vegetarian restaurant opened in New York in 1885 (it was aptly called Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1), and was shortly followed by similar joints in Boston and Los Angeles, the American vegetarian scene wasn’t exactly gourmet; it was far from it. In 1898, a California newspaper, The Herald, lamented on chefs’ lack of skills when it came to vegetables: “The corn and peas are overripe and overdone and may properly be described as ‘fodder.’ The eggplant is greasy. If the turnip and squash get misplaced no one can tell them apart.” Even decades later, in 1928, another journalist complained in Literary Digest: “I have cavorted among hundreds of pale, languorous carrots, fraternized with pecks of weepy boiled beets, and eaten at least a silo full of various greens and grasses.” One can only wonder if that is from where the stereotype of a vegetarian diet as rabbit food originates.

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You could blame the lamentable state of early vegetarian cuisine on a dearth of skill concerning chefs – and certainly that was part of it. You could blame it on lack of ingredients, too; after all, in the nineteenth-century United States, ingredients like chia seeds or tofu were not easily available. Even broccoli, something we nowadays take for granted, didn’t become popular in North America until the 1920s. But the horrible cooking was not just a side effect – it was actually desired and promoted by vegetarian leaders of the day. Influential vegetarians, from John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the inventor of the renowned breakfast cereal) to Sylvester Graham, not only championed simple plant-based foods, but also overcooking – no spices, sugar, or salt. In other words: no culinary fun. One writer actually recommended that all veggies be thoroughly cooked to “prevent any crispness.” The vegetarian thought of the day was closely linked to puritanism, and very radical. It wasn’t just animal flesh that was forbidden, but also sex, tobacco and alcohol. Sylvester Graham believed, for example, that sex irritated the body, making it susceptible to infections – and hence was better avoided. John Harvey Kellogg used newspapers instead of a mattress to sleep on the floor.

Another vegetarian leader of the time, Dr. William Alcott, was a fan of 4am cold showers, and such asceticism translated directly into ascetic, vegetarian cuisine. When Kellogg attended medical school in New York he survived on little but apples, Graham crackers, occasional potatoes, and oatmeal gruel. A simple, austere diet was part of the general puritanical, vegetarian belief that the body should not be overstimulated or overheated. In the 1870s, the vice-president of the Vegetarian Society in the United Kingdom, William Gibson Ward, wrote a letter to The Times which commented that, ”The cheapest and best soup, pleasant, nutritious and wholesome, needs only two articles – water and lentils, well cooked.” That, of course, didn’t result in too many vegetarianism followers. Twenty-first-century surveys show that cooking is a large part of whether someone will stay on a vegetarian diet. In one such survey conducted in Canada, ex-vegetarians (or as some call them “born-again carnivores”) described the vegetarian diet as being “boring” and “too much hassle.”

Luckily for our palates, the miserable vegetarian cooking is well in the past. Today, with restaurants across the United States offering delights such as “portobello carpaccio” and “caramelized Jerusalem artichokes with lemon cream cheese, sweet potato chips and Italian salsa verde,” as well as “asparagus pesto fusilli with poached egg, spring carrots and oyster mushrooms,” vegetarianism’s chances of attracting the masses are greater than it has ever been before.

Marta Zaraska is the author of MEATHOOKED: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Years Obsession With Meat