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USA: 19th Century
Jacksonian Veg: Couldn't stomach pork & whisky

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The Vegetarian

(this article first appeared in the VivaVine, from, February, 2001)

If you have ever been asked whether you are getting enough protein, calcium, or B12, or if anyone has ever made a sour face as you munched on your seitan stew or Tofurkey--consider what vegetarians of the past put up with as a minority in meat-eating America.

Yesterday -- that is, in the Jacksonion era of 1830--per-capita meat consumption was approximately half a pound per day. That meat, often pork, was accompanied by thick, fatty gravy, potatoes cooked in lard, and later grease-laden pastries made from white flour. The meat was often washed down with whiskey, which one observer of the nation's eating habits contended was the only thing that could cut through the grease.

Those who could afford to dine out found a buffet of assorted animal flesh that today could horrify even a hunter -- if he was the least bit conservation minded. Lamb, deer, rabbit, grouse, pigeon, squirrel, squid, fish, and lobster, as well as pig, turkey, cow, and other animal remains, were on the menu at the poshest restaurants. While some nonvegetarian physicians preached that ailing patients had been eating too much, it was common for doctors to recommend that the sick eat meat and drink liquor to stimulate the body back to health. Complaints of dyspepsia - with such symptoms as stomach upset, gas, constipation, and diarrhea -- were rampant in the nation.

It was in this climate that the American vegetarian movement was born (not officially until 1850, but unofficially with the advent of lectures by Sylvester Graham). Not surprisingly, reaction to vegetarianism and vegetarians was mixed. Those meat eaters seeking relief from their health woes, and escape from the horrific drugs and other treatments administered by the regular physicians of the day, either rejected the food of the flesh-pots or reduced their intake. In general, it seems friends and relatives would carefully scrutinize the new vegetarian -- seeking signs of emaciation and impending death. The "vegetable diet" (usually lacto-ovo, although vegans and even fruitarians were present in America) was also believed to emasculate the male. It was claimed by nonvegetarians, in cluding physicians, that meat was needed in the body to build strength. For example, the idea was: Eat pork and gain sinewy muscles like the pig's.

If the alleged risk of death or emasculation did not frighten the potential vegetarian away from rejecting flesh foods, the fear of losing the mind might. Strange as it might seem today, vegetarians of yesteryear were observed by concerned meat eaters , who would vigilantly watch for signs of insanity. This kind of insanity -- that is, the belief that a lack of meat in the diet caused lunacy -- was even argued by a physician in a leading medical journal of the day. Yet despite this, a substantial number of iron-willed and strong-hearted Americans chose to go vegetarian -- enough, at least, to have created a movement that survived to our own era.

Those who were able to withstand the onslaught of concerns of the nonvegetarians, and the all-too-typical ridicule that accompanied the concern, were people interested in much more than just their stomachs. Evidence shows that vegetarians who stayed vegetarian, then as now, were those who rejected meat eating for ethical reasons, including religion and animal rights, and not just because of health.