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Vegetarianism: A History

By Jon, published on 22/03/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Arts and Hobbies > Cooking > The History Of Vegetarianism

While you might think that vegetarianism is quite a recent ideology, the fact is that people have been eating plant-based diets for as long as they have been eating animal products like meat, eggs and dairy products.

Views on a vegetarian diet differed, and continue to differ, in different parts of the world and across the different faiths.

Religion has played a very big part in both the undermining of animal species and in overturning the outlook that humans are superior to creatures.

Keep reading to find out more about the history of the vegetarianism movement and who played a major role in driving it.

Early Man: The Hunting Instinct

According to historians, our ancestors would have had to hunt and dig for their food, often eating any animal that crossed their path, including wild boars. But it seems that this human instinct to hunt dates back far more years than previously thought, according to an article in The Guardian.

Until recently, evidence showed that early humans were killing animals for their meat 400,000 years ago, but a newly discovered butcher site in Tanzania shows that man was capable of sourcing animal flesh up to 1.6 million years earlier than that.

Hunters still shoot game to be eaten as part of their diet. Even now, many have the natural instinct to want to hunt for prey. Photo credit: Stefans02 on VisualHunt

It was this protein-rich diet and the vitamins and nutrition that come with it that is said to have aided in developing our species into the Homo sapiens that we are today, and enabled our brains to grow into such intellectual organs.

Ironically, however, it is this ability to think and to empathise with others, even other species, that led some of the first ever vegetarians to come up with their independent ideologies of being on equal terms with animals. Such views, at the time, were seen as fanatical and often led to them being punished for their wild thoughts.

Before Christ: Religion And Vegetarianism

We don’t often get to know all that much about historical figures in terms of their personal beliefs and passions. Famous mathematician Pythagoras (580 BCE), for example, should not only be remembered for his mathematical breakthroughs; he was also one of the first to show independent thinking concerning animal cruelty, and argued that all species on the planet should have equal rights.

But before him, ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had long-practised a vegetarian ideology as part of their religious beliefs, which meant that they abstained from eating and wearing any animal-derived products. This was rooted in their nature from as early as 3,200 BCE.

But it was Pythagoras himself who took it upon himself to champion the health benefits of a vegetarian way of life and, as we know, he was not a stupid man. Though his scientific evidence was lacking, he viewed a life abstaining from animal products not only as a way to co-exist peacefully on Earth, but as a way to benefit the human: by giving them purity of the soul.

Other famous Greek names opposed this view, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who all firmly believed that animals were put on Earth to be slaves, and therefore had no place other than to become meat for us to eat or clothes to wear. They had very limited sympathy for the butchering of them for meat, and thought Pythagoras’ views weren’t worthy of recognition.

Animals continue to be slaughtered for their meat to this day. Back in the day, many had no sympathy for the animals being slaughtered, even if it was in a barbaric way. Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary on Visual Hunt

While kindness to animals has long been a part of Eastern religious beliefs, for instance in Ancient Egyptian mythology where some animals were seen as sacred gods, Christianity saw humans as the superior living species and thus anyone who disagreed with this notion was seen as deviants or fanatics and were even persecuted for voicing their opinions.

1700-1800s: A More Romantic Take On The Feelings Of Animals

When it came to the Renaissance, vegetarianism was still a rare ideology, but communities were often made to eat a predominantly meatless and plant based diet through no choice of their own.

Meat was a luxury for the rich, and famine and disease began to spread across the world. Leonardo Da Vinci, the famous painter and inventor, was repulsed by the thought of animal slaughter, as were many classical writers of the time. They touchingly put into words the powerful notion that animals could indeed feel and think, just like humans.

John Clare, for instance, wrote about a badger that was captured and baited in his poem titled Badger, meanwhile Ted Hughes remarks on the fate of pigs in a slaughterhouse in his poem View of a Pig. Da Vinci often used wild animals as the subjects of his studies and drawings.

With the Enlightenment period of the 18th century came more opposing views on the place of humans and animals in the order of creation, with some arguing that animals were soulless robots and others debating that they were intelligent creatures that could feel and communicate. At this time, slaughter methods were truly horrific.

1800-1900s: The Birth Of The Vegetarian Society

In the 19th century, romance prevailed and in 1809, a noteworthy move towards vegetarianism as part of Christian faith was established. From this day on, many began to appeal against meat eating, using biblical references to back up their theories.

In 1847, in the UK, The Vegetarian Society was formed and by the 1880s, vegetarian restaurants had began to pop up across the capital making nutritional, vegetarian meals easier to come by. This meant that followers of the cause could celebrate the vegetable with other like-minded individuals within their community.

Finally, with British health still severely inadequate, The Vegetarian Society would send food to deprived communities in an act of humanitarianism to help save the people.

The food shortages in the meat industry that resulted from WWII meant that people were encouraged to dig to source food, and many therefore lived on a near-vegetarian diet throughout the war. In 1945, approximately 100,000 Britons were vegetarian.

Many people would have been vegetarian, whether willingly or not, during World War II. Food parcels during the war would have included bare essentials to keep people alive. Photo credit: HereIsTom on Visual Hunt

1900-2000s: Modern Day Vegetarianism

Today, the society believes that the number of committed vegetarians has risen to almost 2million, and thanks the shops and supermarkets that stock frozen vegetarian goods like quorn mince and tofu pieces for this growth. Without them making ingredients for vegetarian dinner recipes so accessible, this number may be much lower.

It was during the 1950s and 1960s that people started to become much more aware of their health and made links between how they could control their wellbeing by adapting their diet and other life choices. That said, cigarettes and other tobacco products were high in demand so scientists and health experts still had a long way to go in assessing what was good for the human body.

Meanwhile, the 1980s and 1990s revealed the true devastation that humanity was having on the Earth, and so vegetarianism rose once again. More people began to take notice of other options available to them than animal protein and began shifting towards a meatless diet.

Vegetarians today are campaigning for a change in the way that animals are treated, with animal experimentation and factory farming having already been brought to light. Not to mention the fact that they are striving to convince others of the benefits of going vegetarian, like the campaign National Vegetarian Week which takes place in May this year. The same can be said of the vegan community. Vegans abstain from all products that derive from animals. As well as avoiding meat, vegans do not consume eggs, dairy or use products that have been created at the cost of animal suffering.

Anyone can join, even if they don’t plan to continue with a meat-free diet afterwards. The idea is to highlight the health benefits of vegetarianism by encouraging people to try it out, in the hope that they will want to stick it out for longer and potentially become a permanent veggie.

If this interests you, or you want to invite a friend to join you eating meat-free food for the week, then you can sign up for the campaign’s newsletters which will be packed full of fantastic vegetarian recipes, helpful information and competitions throughout the course of the week.

If, however, you don’t think you can eat vegetarian dishes for an entire week, then why not try Meatless Monday, which is a gentler way to introduce a meat eater to meatless meals.

Some of the recipes you could try are: stir fried noodles with tofu in a peanut sauce, macaroni and cheese with a spinach salad on the side, portobello mushroom wellington with roasted cauliflower and sprouts, goat cheese and caramelized onion quiche with Mediterranean roasted vegetables, Mexican bean chili with tortilla crisps and an avocado salad, sweet potato frittata with kale and asparagus, cheesy cannelloni with a tomato salad, onion tart with carrot salad, curried potato curry with pickled chutney, grilled bean burger with a sweetcorn and carrot salad topped with a balsamic vinaigrette, pumpkin soup with bread to dip in, feta stuffed pepper with spiced couscous, black bean burritos with wild rice, mushroom and parmesan arancini (risotto balls) coated in fried garlicky bread crumbs… Or, if you prefer fast and easy recipes, then you could try things like avocado on toast, hummus with sliced peppers and pitta bread, tomato, onion and pesto bruschetta, vegetarian lasagna, or simple pasta recipes. You see, your healthy dinner doesn’t have to be boring!

You can find many more free recipes online, including vegetarian breakfast recipes, side dishes, puddings and, of course, more vegetarian dinner recipes.

Remember that seeds and nuts like pecan, cashews or pine nuts, for example, are great for adding texture. Also, if you really want to embrace a healthy lifestyle, then stop munching on biscuits for your mid-morning snack and instead crunch on some pumpkin seeds!

That said, even vegetarians like to ‘veg’ out on the sofa with a tasty treat. So you can still enjoy a bowl of mozzarella and salsa topped nachos with friends – it is allowed!

If you fancy trying your hand at creating your own fragrant and mouth watering meat-free dishes but are stuck for ideas to base your meal around, then you might be interested to know about these delicious yet less mainstream products that are great to cook with: quinoa, lentils, polenta, arugula, acorn squash, seitan, artichoke, orzo, gnudi, tempeh, farro salad, bok choy, yukon gold potatoes, okra and cremini mushrooms.

While you might not find all of them in your local supermarket, you’re sure to be able to source them from specialist shops that cater for vegans and vegetarians.

Further Reading

If you found this article an interesting read, then why not read others on vegetarian cooking, such as:

Tips To Be A Healthy Vegetarian

The Best UK Vegetarian Food Bloggers

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