Diving deep into the origins and development of any ingredient or tool in the kitchen can often lead to a much more complex history than you’d expect. Take cast iron, for example: You might be familiar with the vintage skillets made by Griswold and Wagner in the 19th and 20th centuries, but did you know that the first record of cooking in cast iron stems from China in the 5th century? From there, cast iron has made its way into myriad cultures and cookware forms, before finally becoming the skillet we associate today with southern American cuisine and perfectly seared steaks.
We’ve found that knowing a bit about the history of what you’re eating and cooking with can cultivate a deeper appreciation of how your food came to be. And, perhaps even more importantly, it can reveal the commonalities and intersections between cultures that food can (inadvertently) bring about. This month, we’re covering all the basics of plant-based cooking in cast iron—from which meatless burgers are actually good, to a perfectly pressed cast iron mushroom steak. But while we’re sharing our package of plant-based recipes, we thought we’d take a look at how vegetarianism came to be, and where it started (hint: it’s a lot older than you might think).
Suffice it to say that the history of vegetarianism can be (and is) a book, but we’ll touch on some of the key moments where it first appeared around the world, and how those dietary decisions differed from the choice to be vegetarian today. (It’s also worth noting that while we’re focusing on vegetarianism here, veganism is its own thing, and has its origins in much more recent history, within the past century.)
Early evidence of vegetarianism in Asia stems from three religions—Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time frame where vegetarianism appeared in each of these belief systems (just as it’s often hard to pinpoint when these religions were really founded themselves!), but it’s clear that these religions popularized plant-based diets across India between 1500—500 BC, with Buddhism ultimately bringing vegetarianism to China and Japan as well.
The theological reasoning for vegetarianism differs between belief systems, but in all three of these ancient religions, it fundamentally comes from a desire to not harm or kill animals. A core principle of Buddhism stipulates that one cannot take the life of any human or animal, while the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures) make clear that all living things have equal value. While not all Hindus and Buddhists were or are vegetarian, Jainism necessitates a strict adherence to a meat-free diet. This story of vegetarianism in Asia outlines the beginnings of “moral vegetarianism,” or a dietary system based on an ethical concern for other living things.
Histories of plant-based diets often skip over vegetarianism in Asia, instead fast forwarding to Ancient Greece and the somewhat renowned “Pythagorean diet.” This is exactly what it sounds like: philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras believed all creatures had souls, prompting him to choose not to eat meat, although some sources say he may have eaten fish. His followers, the Pythagoreans, followed suit, and the Pythagorean diet was born. (Funnily enough, their diet also banned eating beans! But the ban on beans was lifted shortly after the philosopher’s death.) This temporary title for plant-based eating lasted longer than Pythagoras’ lifetime, holding its own until the term “vegetarianism” was coined in the 19th century.
The “Vegetarian Society of England” was founded in 1847, and this union gave birth to “vegetarianism” as a word and modern concept. Just a few years later, the diet would spread to the United States, with the founding of the “American Vegetarian Society.” These groups focused on meat-free diets as a form of temperance and abstinence, a desire to cut back on indulgences. Similarly, early vegetarianism in America was often associated with stricter Christian denominations like the Bible Christian Church and Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Even after vegetarianism was formalized in the mid-19th century, it still existed primarily as a fringe diet, often associated with politically active feminists or abolitionists. One thing we don’t want to gloss over is that the main proponents of vegetarianism during this time, and the reason it lasted until the mid 20th century, were leaders in the eugenics movement. People like John Kellogg (who was a Seventh-day Adventist as well) and playwright George Bernard Shaw propagated a religion of “biologic living” which dictated that vegetarianism would help create “pure” individuals.
Throughout the 1900s, a number of influences gradually spawned the popularization of vegetarianism in the United States, with meat-free diets really entering mainstream culture around the 1950s and 60s.
Upton Sinclair’s famous book, The Jungle, put Americans off factory farming and mass-produced meat. Citizens were also encouraged to give up meat and other scarce ingredients during World War II, to help feed the troops. Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet was not only wildly popular, but the first of its kind to point out that the production of meat has negative environmental impacts. Her book also addressed the potential protein deficiencies in a plant-based diet, highlighting combinations of foods like grains and legumes as a sufficient source of protein. What became clear during these decades was that vegetarianism was no longer a purely ethical or religious concern.
Today, the bulk of the world’s vegetarian population still lives in India, which houses roughly 38 percent of global vegetarians. And while vegetarians might not be so common in the United States, the choice to live a meat-free lifestyle has become increasingly visible. Choosing to be vegetarian for a variety of concerns—including health, spirituality, the environment, or money—has become normalized, a shift that’s increasingly visible in our food culture. The plant-based meat substitute industry has boomed, and vegetarians and meat-eaters alike are consuming things like the Impossible Burger. Alongside fauxteins we’ve witnessed the expansion of the plant-based milk industry and the appearance of (some truly great) vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
The visibility and culture built up around modern vegetarianism has also cultivated a general shift towards plant-forward diets; it’s difficult to fully give up meat, but many consumers are willing to be “flexitarian,” or eat less meat overall. Whether you’re interested in becoming vegetarian or not, there’s value in knowing what’s happening in the food culture around you, and where those trends come from. (It’s also worth cooking a mushroom steak sometime, you might find you like it!)