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A History
by Colin Spencer
Four Walls Eight Windows, 384 pp., $28

Reviewed by Sarah D. Scalet

Tofurkey was a long time coming. In the Middle Ages, on days when good Christians were supposed to avoid meat, the rich could interpret the rules more liberally than the poor. Ingenious cooks concocted fake "bacon," using salmon for the pink meat and pike for the fat. Curdled almond milk was made into substitute eggs or cream cheese. That didn't satiate St. Thomas Aquinas, who declared that the chicken was of aquatic origin, making our feathered friends fair game even on fasting days. (The Church later ruled otherwise.) Early on, the vegetarian diet was firmly linked with denial but open to interpretation: Was fish a meat? Were eggs? And was pretending to eat meat any different from actually eating meat?

Vegetarianism: A History

Not much has changed since then. Those of us whose grocery stores carry three kinds of fake bacon may trick ourselves into thinking otherwise, but the meat-free diet has always been about denial. Vegetarians reject food that others have decided is acceptable. As someone who has been mostly vegetarian for the better part of a decade -- half of those years in the corn-and-cattle belt, where interstate signs say things like "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" -- I can tell you that rejecting meat is not always popular. Perhaps part of the reason is that our beliefs spring from such a peculiar past, as detailed in Colin Spencer's new book Vegetarianism: A History.

In ancient Greece, Pythagoras once thought he heard a reincarnated friend barking at him in the form of a dog; his belief in transmigration of souls was supposedly behind his rejection of meat. His later followers abstained from meat because they believed that the more insubstantial the food they ate, the closer they could get to the gods. (Hallucinogens also helped, but that's another story.) One early Christian ascetic warned followers against "bewitching" foods that entice us to eat when we are not hungry, advocating instead a diet of vegetables, fruits, and milk products. The twelfth-century Cathars believed that anything having to do with flesh, from meat-eating to sex, was evil.

Nineteenth-century activists in England, the first in history to call themselves "vegetarians," were inclined to believe that all flavorings, including salt, were stimulants as bad as alcohol. By then, the original "whole foods" movement was alive and well: In a letter to the Times of London, one of these self-proclaimed vegetarians insisted that the best soup in the world consisted only of lentils and water, well-cooked. Clearly, there was very little pleasure in denying yourself meat, unless you had a palate for self-righteousness.

These days, vegetarians are hardly known for eschewing the pleasures of food. Why else would there be recipe books with titles like The Voluptuous Vegan ? Despite our many differences, though, we rebel eaters have always had one thing in common: Like it or not, we are making a statement. Exactly what statement is being made, and how the rest of society reacts, are what make vegetarianism an interesting prism through which to look at human nature.

Exhaustively researched, this new version of Spencer's history couldn't have come at a better time. In the near-decade since an earlier version of his book was published in London as The Heretic's Feast , concerns have mounted about the spread of mad cow disease, the unknown side effects of synthetic growth hormones, and the ecological and health hazards of factory farming. Yet recent months have also brought a new backlash against the vegetarian diet, culminating with articles like the one featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine that explored the scientific and evolutionary evidence in favor of Dr. Atkins's controversial high-fat, low-carb diet -- the take-the-burger-hold-the-bun, anti-vegetarian diet. In light of new research, I'd been yearning for someone to step into the fray and explore the biological reasons for a plant-based diet.

It's a subject Spencer should be well suited to address. The British food writer has published several cookbooks but has a sideline interest in groups whose behavior is not necessarily embraced by mainstream society. The book jacket doesn't say so, but his previous book is T he Gay Kama Sutra . This latest outsider's tome aims to be the definitive guide to the history of those who chose not to eat meat, a decision that is fundamental to Spencer's definition of "vegetarian."

He focuses specifically on people throughout history who had meat available, could afford to eat it, and yet chose for ideological reasons not to do so. (By meat he usually means the flesh of mammals and sometimes of fish or poultry.) His interest in outsiders leads him to emphasize the West over the East, where Hinduism and Buddhism have made being vegetarian socially acceptable. Even though a vegetarian philosophy may date back as far as 800 B.C. in India, the history of vegetarianism is, evolutionarily speaking, a relatively short one. "Ideals," he ponders, "when they involve the voluntary sacrifice of a particular food, can only flourish in a well-fed community, where people have enough leisure to reflect on the meaning of existence."

Perhaps that short history is why Spencer begins with a perplexing first chapter in which he rewrites widely accepted theories of natural selection to try to postdate the early hominid evolution from herbivore to omnivore. Spencer seems to think that if he can demonstrate that meat-eating evolved later, then vegetarianism makes biological sense -- not exactly the evidence I was hoping for to counteract the Atkins effect. The crux of this spurious argument lies in the highly controversial "aquatic ape" theory that our bodies carry evidence of a phase of living in the sea as primates. By page thirteen, Spencer is explaining why he believes this theory to be "thoroughly reasonable" for six reasons, my favorite of which is that "our enjoyment of water is unique among land mammals." Clearly the man has never spent any time with a Labrador retriever.

As much as this leap of logic undermines the validity of the subsequent chapters, it serves a purpose as a warning that Spencer has chosen to focus on whichever theories happen to be most convenient to rounding out his history, not those most likely to be true. Even the plentiful endnotes and footnotes cannot change the fact that the work lacks academic rigor, not to mention careful writing and editing: Spencer's grasp of how to form a complex sentence is weak at best. Ultimately the book falls short of its goal, favoring the appearance of being comprehensive over being comprehensible. The book could have been twice as good in half the space. But what a thought-provoking ramble this is.

The first half of the book is primarily an exploration of ancient religions with unusual eating habits -- not the least of them Christianity, whose followers believed that God had given man dominion over animals. Spencer's goal is to prove how society has persecuted vegetarians throughout the years, but it feels like revisionist history. He devotes considerable space, for instance, to the Manicheans, a Gnostic offshoot of Christianity whose followers believed that eating flesh would "weigh down the corporeal body and delay the time before it became pure spirit." But Spencer only skirts around the fact that what really bothered the church about the Manicheans, and led to their persecution as heretics for centuries, was their belief that they didn't need Jesus for salvation -- not their refusal to eat meat.

In the second half the book starts to hang together more, as the ideas become more familiar and form the foundation for modern vegetarianism. By Elizabethan times, factory farming was already flourishing, and pigs were fattened in pens so tight they could not turn around. In the late eighteenth century, Christian theologian William Paley expressed concern about the inefficiency of rearing livestock: "Much...of the bread-corn, which went directly to the nourishment of human bodies, now only contributes to it by fattening the flesh of sheep and oxen." The teenage Benjamin Franklin delighted in the money he saved by eating a meat-free diet (but then decided being a carnivore was more natural when he saw that one fish had eaten another fish whole). And then there's that most inexplicable vegetarian, Hitler, whose alleged oral fixation made him compare a breakfast ham to a corpse. After that, vegetarians stopped arguing that their diet made them peaceful.

Only in the closing chapter and appendices do we enter the present day. As in centuries past, there are strong environmental reasons to be concerned about the world's meat consumption. Farms in Holland, for instance, produce 103 million tons of manure every year, almost twice what their land can absorb. The quantity of food consumed by the world's cattle is enough to feed almost 9 billion people -- about 3 billion more than are on the planet now. No wonder some 10 million Americans are giving up meat, according to last summer's issue of Time magazine that asked "Should We All Be Vegetarians?"

Nowadays, these vegetarians are linked only by a loose set of philosophical and spiritual beliefs, and it's tempting to say that modern life has made us more scientific. But, as if to remind us how little we human beings have changed, Spencer points out that we have our own peculiar beliefs. Contemporary vegetarians, often dismayed by how far removed from nature their lives have become, are easily seduced into ascribing a mythical effect to foods labeled "natural" and "pure." It's an astute observation about a world where people -- and I'm as guilty as the rest -- pay a premium for over-packaged fake bacon high in sodium. Spencer doesn't say so, but the force that beckons the next generation to join this strange history may be something even stronger than personal convictions: the American marketing machine.

Vegetarianism: A History
High and Mighty SUVs
When Smoke Ran Like Water
Bronx Ecology

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Sarah D. Scalet is a journalist and essayist who lives in New York City.

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council