VegSource Interactive, Inc. | Book Review

Authors dig into meaty history of vegetarianism - no bones about it

With vegetarianism more popular than ever, it's easy to think of a meatless diet as a newfangled development. After all, many of the meatless treats that are now grocery-store staples are the result of decidedly contemporary technology (Quorn, anyone?).

But as authors Karen and Michael Iacobbo reveal in their new history, “Vegetarian America'' (Praeger Publishers, 2004), this country has been home to people who eschewed meat since its very founding. Hub residents are, of course, plenty familiar with the Mayflower voyage; the rock the travelers touched is just 40 miles south of here. But did you know that among the earliest colonists to settle this area were a number of vegetarians? It seems hard to imagine that in an unforgiving climate, and with foodstuffs of all sorts scarce, that these first non-native New Englanders would have rejected a meal of any variety. But even at the very first Thanksgiving, there might have been diners who passed up the turkey for the pumpkin.

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Don't be surprised if it's a tale you've not heard before, says Karen Iaccobo, who wrote the book with her husband. “The history of this country has been written by the majority and vegetarians have been cast aside. The little that I'd read about vegetarians always portrayed them as quacks and fanatics.” The Iacobbos spent six years researching the book, dredging up archival material from library basements. The result is a compelling, readable account of an unfamiliar history - one in which Boston looms large.

Boston Common was the site of what was likely the country's very first natural-food store, run by the American Physiological Society. This 1830s version of Whole Foods provided local residents with grains, corn, beans, tapioca and dyspepsia bread, as well as produce grown without manure or fertilizer. Around the corner, the area now known as Downtown Crossing was home to vegetarian hot spots, including a lecture hall where diet gurus Sylvester Graham and William Alcott lectured.

But if Boston emerged as a center of vegetarianism in the new country, the argument that Americans should follow a meat-free diet wasn't exactly uncontroversial. Throughout the early part of the 19th century, a fierce debate raged about the relative merits of a vegetarian diet, often in the pages of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. One anti-vegetarian writer even referred to New Englanders who abstained from meat as “gaunt, wry-faced, lantern-jawed, ghostly-looking invalids.”

In 1837, the diet debate erupted in near violence. Local butchers and bakers, who'd had it with the vegetarians' claims about the detrimental effects of meat and white bread (Sylvester Graham advocated that people bake their bread at home using Graham flour, made from coarse whole wheat), lay in wait for Mr. Graham at the Marlborough Hotel in downtown Boston. Unfortunately for them, however, Graham's supporters had planned a counterattack; they were up on the hotel's top floors, and greeted their opponents with a dousing of lime.

Though these 150-year-old diet wars might have been forgotten, a version of them lives on in the current skirmishes between fans and detractors of the Atkins diet. There are even parallels in the Iacobbos' history to the recent back-and-forth over Dr. Atkins' medical records. Sylvester Graham, it turns out, died at a relatively young age in Northampton. “The exact cause of Graham's death is a mystery,'' the authors note. “An autopsy found no organic disease.”

To the Iacobbos, the history of the movement for vegetarianism in this country is one of struggle, every advance meeting an equally powerful backlash. And, aside from the current appetite for high-protein diets, the authors believe that the movement they've chronicled is on the upswing.

“You look at polls today and young people have respect for vegetarianism and veganism, even if they're not following them themselves. In the past, vegetarians were treated as strange and antisocial, and now they're respected,” says Karen Iacobbo. “That's real social progress.”

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