A brief history of vegetarianism, along with a few drool-worthy recipes, show that eating your greens can be a boon to your spiritual and physical health—not to mention your palate.
The Root of Vegetarianism
Leaving meat off the menu is nothing new. In fact, it’s ancient history. Animal-free diets are older than Egypt’s Great Pyramid.
On a nippy afternoon last February a pregnant woman crawled into a cage in a classy London shopping district and crouched, almost entirely naked, for 75 minutes as passersby gaped and photographers snapped shots. “Unhappy Mother’s Day for Pigs! GO VEGETARIAN” read a banner behind the cage.
“It was a happy event,” says Bruce Friedrich, a policy expert with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who organized the display, “at almost no cost to us we reached millions of people with the fact that factory farms are hell on earth for moms all over the world.”
Protesting meat takes many forms; PETA uses nudity and disturbing slaughterhouse footage; other advocates link eating meat to environmental issues like climate change (see “The Low-Carbon Diet”); Seventh Day Adventists highlight health risks. These groups add spice to the modern-day vegetarian movement, but their message is timeless: Forgoing meat can make the world a better place.
“People have been cognizant of the ecological ramifications of a meat-centered diet for thousands of years,” says Rynn Berry, the author of five books on vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism was popularized in ancient India, where a succession of prophets known as tirthankars created a religion called Jainism. The final prophet, Mahavira, lived 2,500 years ago and promoted compassion for all living creatures, an idea later adopted by Buddhism. Jains believe consuming meat incurs negative karma that stymies the soul’s spiritual liberation. They do not wear fur or silk, which require animals to be slaughtered. Jain monks cover their mouths with cloth to prevent them from accidentally killing insects. Moreover, Jains do not eat root vegetables such as potatoes because the skin, which is capable of sprouting other potato plants, is thought to be alive. Nor do they consume fruits like figs, which are loaded with seeds. “This is considered mass murder,” says Padmanabh Jaini, a scholar of Buddhism and Jainism at Berkeley University. There are, however, some exceptions: “A mango, with only one seed inside, is okay,” says Jaini.
Jainism influenced the West by way of a mystic mathematician named Pythagoras, who scholars believe traveled to India sometime in the sixth century B.C. The cultish group he founded claimed numbers underlay reality and abstained from eating meat. Killing animals was cruel, argued the Pythagoreans. Furthermore, each living creature had a soul that passed to another species after death; consuming an animal with a soul that once belonged to a human was tantamount to cannibalism. Pythagoras’s ideas were espoused by many Greek scholars, including Ovid, Plotinus, Plato, and Porphyry, who was born three centuries later. In a letter to a friend named Firmus, Porphyry states, “I heard from visitors, Firmus, that you had condemned fleshless food and reverted to consuming flesh.”
In the letter, which was composed into a book called De Abstinencia, Porphyry explains why a flesh-free diet is superior and meticulously repudiates meat-eating. “It is not the same kind of taking, for it is not from the unwilling,” Porphyry says, when considering why plants are still consumed given that they too have souls, “If we let them be, they themselves let fall their fruits.”
India influenced Western diet in another way. Britons who traveled to the subcontinent in the 19th century brought back peculiar recipes and new beliefs. “As soon as the British began to colonize India, they became exposed to these ideas of ethical vegetarianism that they had been oblivious to for thousands of years,” says Berry.
Vegetarianism in Britain became a movement of reform, says Chris Olivant, of the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, which was founded in 1847. Eating meat was associated with a life of sin that included alcohol and aggression. Vegetarian advocates cared less about improving the lot of animals and more about improving the lot of men. “The practice of flesh-eating is not only cruel towards animals, but degrading to men,” wrote H.S. Salt in a late-19th-century essay that influenced Mahatma Gandhi, “to those, at least, who have eyes to see, and ears to hear.”
As reformers like Salt were preaching in Britain, a new form of Christianity was developing in the United States, known as Seventh Day Adventism. Adventists believe a spiritual life cannot be nurtured without a healthy body, and a healthy body, according to scripture, entails a diet without meat. “The original diet given to humans in Genesis One is a plant-based diet,” says Winston Craig, head of the Nutrition and Wellness Department at Andrews University, a Seventh Day Adventist institution. God intends us to be stewards, says Craig, and it’s unethical for stewards to consume the creatures they’re charged with caring for. One instance when God does condone flesh eating is after the Great Flood, when Noah and his animals exit the ark and find a deluged world. But a meat diet might have been detrimental for man's health, notes Craig. “After the permission to eat flesh food the longevity of people was greatly shortened,” he says.
Research on Adventists has provided novel insights into the effects of vegetarianism on the human body and has helped to disassemble old beliefs, such as that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy. For example, a 2001 study appearing in the Annals of Internal Medicine that tracked male and female Californians age 30 and above, found that vegetarian Adventist men could be expected to live nine and a half years and Adventist women about six years longer than other Californians (specifically, a 1985 population). Craig maintains a website that espouses the pros and cons of a raw food diet and addresses concerns about consuming pesticides and antioxidants. “As we’ve seen in the last six months, the world can quickly change,” says Craig. “We have to be in tune with society so we’re not just playing the same [song] from 30 years ago.”
The Jains have changed with the times, too, building communities in Australia, Europe and the United States. Devi Kamdar, for example, was born in Gujarat, a state in western India with a high population of Jains, and moved with her husband and young children to New York City 25 years ago. She intended to raise her kids Jain but initially found it difficult. Her son was beat up at school, and at the lunch table other kids poked fun at her children because their food stank. “You have to tell them that, ‘If you think that my food smells, I will sit at a separate table,’” Kamdar told her kids, “‘but for me, your food smells.’”
Her children grew up unscathed and highly successful. Today her 26-year-old daughter holds an architectural degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and specializes in affordable housing. Her son, 29, graduated with a political science degree from Georgetown and plans to go back to school for a master’s in that field. While Kamdar has taken to eating vegetables like potatoes and onions and occasionally wearing silk, her children continue to adhere strictly to Jainism. “My daughter still doesn’t eat roots,” she says. “She will read the ingredients before she buys a cake.” (Eggs and lard are forbidden.)
Like PETA members, Jains protest meat consumption—just in their own way. Kamdar says she could never imagine putting a naked pregnant woman in a cage to promote her beliefs. “We will not criticize and we will not hate—that is very fundamental,” says Kamdar. “I can sit with you on the same table; you can eat your meat and I will eat my vegetable.”
A more typical Jain response would be prayer. Last Thanksgiving Jains from around New York City gathered at the Jain Center of America, in Queens, for a 24-hour prayer session in honor of all the butchered turkeys.
“If you go on a Saturday or Sunday you will find something special going on,” says Kamdar, of the Jane Center. “It doesn’t have to be a group; even one person might stop by to sit and pray for 24 or 48 hours nonstop.”
If you’re hungry for additional reading on vegetarianism, check out these sources.
Dr. Winston Craig, head of the Nutrition and Wellness Department at Andrews University, a Seventh Day Adventist institution, has a nutrition website that features the latest vegetarian science news, research supporting veggie diets, explanations of veggie concepts like raw food diets and terms like pesticides and antioxidants, and useful links.
The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom provides recipes, a guide for new and aspiring vegetarians, info for teachers, a classification system for veggie products, and a history of vegetarianism in the United Kingdom.
Jain University provides an explanation of Jainism beliefs, festivals, and history, as well as pertinent links and contacts.
The website for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) includes a vegetarian cooking blog, veggie recipes, animal activism news, video presentations of animals being abused, and PETA campaign information.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Dietetic Association website explains the Seventh-day Adventist position on vegetarianism and provides research supporting veggie diets.
Back to Top
Back to Web Exclusives
Read related story: "The Low-Carbon Diet"
Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, shares some of his favorite vegetarian cookbooks and recipes for shaving some greenhouse gases off your “wasteline.”
The New Moosewood Cookbook
By Mollie Katzen
Ten Speed Press; Revised edition (January 2000)
The PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) Vegetarian Cookbook: 240 Healthy and Easy No-Prep Recipes for Busy Cooks
By Donna Klein
HP Trade (December 2004)
For vegetarian cooking, Mike Tidwell says he puts Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook at the top of his list. He has relied heavily on various versions of this classic for 15 years. Recently, he’s also grown fond of Donna Klein’s The PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) Vegetarian Cookbook: 240 Healthy and Easy No-Prep Recipes for Busy Cooks.
Below are two of Tidwell’s favorite recipes. His promise to all chefs: “Serve either of these dishes to your loved ones and I’ll give you $1,000 if anyone asks, ‘Where’s the meat?’ The great nutrition and flavor of these dishes satisfy totally.”
Seitan Portobella Stroganoff
Source: Post Punk Kitchen (Submitted by Isa)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: Roughly one hour
Serves: 6 to 8
2 large skillets (preferably one of them cast iron), fine grater or zester
1/2 pound wide noodles (Tidwell uses Eden Farms parsley lemon strips or standard
fettuccini broken in half), prepared according to package directions
3 1/2 cups seitan, sliced in thin, wide strips
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup shallots, thinly sliced
1 large onion, quartered and sliced in half moons
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 portobello caps, thinly sliced
1 cup burgundy cooking wine
2 cups cold water
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder (corn or potato starch will work, too)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup original flavored soy milk
1 cup peas
Dissolve the arrowroot in the 2 cups of water, set aside.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic, mushrooms, and thyme. Saute for 15 minutes more.
Meanwhile, heat a cast iron skillet and add 1 teaspoon olive oil (just to coat it). Add the seitan and saute over medium heat for about 25 minutes, until it is dark brown and crispy on the outside. If you are using store-bought seitan you need only cook it for 10 minutes.
Back to the sauce: add salt, wine and paprika. Turn the heat up high to reduce the liquid and cook for about 10 minutes.
Lower the heat to medium-high, add the water and arrowroot, stir well, and let sauce thicken, about 5 minutes. Add the nutritional yeast and mix well until it is dissolved. Add the soy milk and mustard and turn t he heat down to low; be very careful not to let the sauce boil now because it can make the soy milk and mustard bitter. Add the seitan and peas. Cook for 10 more minutes.
Divide the noodles into bowls and mix with the stroganoff. It is best to mix immediately so that the pasta doesn't stick. You can top it off with tofu sour cream, but Tidwell likes it just the way it is.
Asian Vegetables With Tofu and Coconut Milk
Makes 2 main-course or 4 side-dish servings
8 small broccoli florets
8 small cauliflower florets
1 tablespoon oriental sesame oilw
2 large garlic cloves, minced
12 pieces canned baby corn, drained
8 snow peas, strings removed
6 large shiitake mushrooms (about 4 ounces), stemmed, caps sliced
1 small Chinese or Japanese eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into
3/4 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk*
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce* or vegetarian oyster sauce*
1 2-inch square of baked teriyaki-seasoned tofu, cut into 1x1/2x1/4-inch pieces
1 baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
1 green onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
Blanch the broccoli and cauliflower in a pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.
Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the broccoli, cauliflower, corn, snow peas, mushrooms, and eggplant.
Cover and cook until the vegetables are almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes.
Mix in the coconut milk, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Add the tofu, bok choy, and green onion.
Cover and cook until vegetables are just tender and coated with sauce, about 2 minutes longer. Sprinkle with pepper. Transfer vegetables to a large bowl and serve immediately.
* Available at Asian markets and in the Asian foods section of most supermarkets.
Back to Top
Back to Web Exclusives
Read related story: "The Low-Carbon Diet"