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Maine’s first vegetarian

The controversial 18th-century Jesuit priest could well have been an ascetic, part of a Christian movement that abstained from meat, which its adherents associated with carnality, gluttony and lechery.

The Jesuit priest Father Sébastian Rale (1657-1724) is a well-known yet polarizing figure from Maine’s colonial past. He’s been called an enemy of England, a beloved village priest, a Black Robe, a political operative, a “gifted linguist,” and “the apostle of the Abenakis.” Curiously, no one has called him a vegetarian. The omission persists, despite Rale’s 1722 account of the simple vegan foods he ate in the early 18th-century in the Abenaki agricultural town of Nanrantsouak, along the Kennebec River.

This August marks 300 years since Rale was killed in 1724 during the colonial massacre at Nanrantsouak (today referred to as Norridgewock and located at Old Point in Madison), where the British militia also shot and killed Chief Bomoseen, Chief Mog, a powerful clan mother, and dozens of townspeople, including women and children.

In 1722, Rale (whose French name has many alternative spellings) wrote a long letter to his nephew, translated into English in 1892, where he reveals, “my nourishment is nothing but Indian corn, which is pounded and of which I make every day a kind of porridge that I cook with water. The only relish (adoncissement) that I add to it is in mingling a little (maple) sugar.” He added that he also ate nuts and root vegetables.

The meals Rale describes were not only vegetarian but vegan, although neither word existed at the time. “My food is simple and light,” Rale wrote. “I have never been able to acquire the taste for the meat and the smoked fish” of the Abenaki. Historians have generally interpreted this and other things Rale wrote about animal-based meat as a commentary on Abenaki cuisine compared to French cuisine.

But I see something entirely different in Rale’s comments about meat. I see a classic ascetic vegetarian.

The year Rale wrote the letter to his nephew was the same year Benjamin Franklin adopted vegetarianism for a short time after reading Englishman Thomas Tryon’s influential vegetarian book “Way to Health,” first published in 1683 when Rale was still in France. Franklin used the money he saved by eating vegetarian meals to buy more books and forward his education.

In 1722, the Christian ascetic movement, and with it vegetarianism, was enjoying an upswing.

“At the beginning of the eighteenth century vegetarianism emerged as a powerful voice in France and other Catholic countries, by knitting scientific discoveries to the Church’s traditional teaching on abstinence,” historian Tristram Stuart wrote in “The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism: From 1600 to Modern Times.” “Many of the early Church fathers had been penitent ascetics, believing that luxury corrupted and abstinence was the key to purification.”

This 1949 photograph shows
the Father Sébastian Rale
monument in Madison, which
was erected in 1833. Columnist
Avery Yale Kamila believes
the priest was a vegetarian,
making him the earliest
one she has identified
in the state. Image courtesy
of Special Collections,
Raymond H. Fogler Library,
DigitalCommons@UMaine
According to historian C. M. Woolgar in “Food: The History of Taste,” “From at least the fourth century, Christianity promoted abstinence for its spiritual benefits. Refraining from meat and dairy fats, and hence from carnality and its associated vices of gluttony and lechery, helped to ensure the salvation of the soul.” The Christian traditions of temperance and fast days stem from such beliefs.

Tryon, like most vegetarians of this era, was also a temperance advocate. Rale, too, avoided alcoholic beverages and worked to keep his flock away from English-supplied rum.

In addition to possible evidence of his own vegetarianism, Rale left us with evidence of the importance of plant-based foods in Nanrantsouak, as apparent in an Abenaki-French dictionary Rale wrote; today the book is held in the collection of Harvard University.

The longest entry in Rale’s dictionary is for corn, “skamsn,” spanning two full pages. Using my rudimentary French with assistance from Google Translate, I found words for white corn, red corn, black corn, yellow corn, early corn, small corn, large corn and old corn. Rale supplies Abenaki words for “I spread the corn by hand;” “I dry it in the sun;” and “How beautiful is your corn?” Nanrantsouak was surrounded by huge cornfields.

Rale also included the word “sisiktséiganar,” which as translated from French into English reads “corn we put in the ashes and stir.” I think this is a clear reference to culinary ash and nixtamalization, a chemical process where wood ashes unlock the nutrients in corn making them bioavailable. It’s the process used to make masa to this day.

Bread, “pain” in French and “abañn” in Abenaki, earns a significant entry in the dictionary, which gives the Abenaki phrases for “I bake bread”; “I knead bread”; “I wrap it in leaves”; “I baked the bread in the ashes”; and “We give blessed bread.” The entry for pumpkin, or “aá’sasé,” includes the Abenaki words for pumpkin rind, pumpkin seeds, germinating pumpkin seeds, and a descriptor meaning “among the pumpkins.” Under the entry for nuts, the Abenaki word given by Rale is “pagann,” similar to “pokan,” the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet word for nuts, according to the online Peskotomuhkati-Wolastoqey Language Portal.

Rale’s dictionary contains many more culinary tidbits, and while I haven’t discovered any that suggest the presence of other vegetarians at Nanrantsouak, they do paint a picture of a sophisticated agricultural town where cultivated crops were staples of the daily diet.

Regular readers may remember I previously wrote about lifelong vegetarian James Gower (1772-1855), marking him as the earliest Maine vegetarian I’d then discovered. I’ve continued to work on the Maine Vegetarian History Project, and I now believe Rale is Maine’s earliest vegetarian.

Do other, earlier vegetarians exist in Maine’s past? I think it’s likely, but the chance of finding them dims the further back we go in Maine history. If these vegetarians were women, non-Christians or came from non-Western European backgrounds, the odds of discovery are even more remote. All the early Maine vegetarians I’ve identified, including Rev. Jotham Sewall of Chesterville and Captain Peter Twitchell of Bethel, are prominent, white, Christian men, whose civic stature and social status combined to preserve details of their involvement in the vegetarian movement, which stretches back through the written record for at least 2,500 years, tightly intertwined with religion until the last century.

Like many other pieces of the Pine Tree State’s plant-based past that I’ve unearthed, Rale’s vegetarianism has been hiding in plain sight all this time.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

This article was published originally at: www.pressherald.com

 

CONTACT

Avery Yale Kamila 

207-780-0915 

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~ Maine Vegetarian History Project ~

https://scalar.usc.edu/works/maine-vegetarian-history-project/

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