Vegetarianism Originally Had Little To Do With Animal Rights

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, February 20, 2016
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“Comparative anatomy, therefore, proves that man is naturally a frugivorous animal, formed to subsist upon fruits, seeds, and farinaceous vegetables.” —Sylvester Graham, “The Science of Human Life”

In A Nutshell

Today, many of the most vocal vegetarians aren’t afraid to say they’re doing it for the animals even though the origins of the vegetarian lifestyle had less to do with saving animals and more to do with maintaining a clean, bland lifestyle that would curb sexual desire and prevent the downfall of society. The movement was started by the Reverend Sylvester Graham (of graham cracker fame). He pushed the idea of a meat-free, flavor-free diet in order to help curb sexual appetites and free people from the need for masturbation. It wasn’t until some of his followers—the Kellogg family—decided to try their hand at making fake meat that the Seventh-day Adventist Church got hold of the idea and came up with the now-familiar hot dogs and burger patties.

The Whole Bushel

If there’s a vegetarian in your life, you undoubtedly know it. It’s one of those life choices that people will try to recruit for, and while some might choose to do it because of health reasons, many claim they’re doing it so they don’t have to eat adorable animals. The origins of the vegetarian movement are rooted in a very, very different idea.

We’ve talked a little bit about how graham crackers and cereal gained popularity because of the strict anti-masturbation policies of the Reverend Sylvester Graham and Dr. John Kellogg. Their beliefs danced along the cliff’s edge of fanatical and then did a swan dive right off, with Kellogg even writing papers on how parents could tell their children were suffering from the ill effects of masturbation. (Notable signs included a preference for being alone and stooped shoulders.)

Graham believed that America’s lusty ways were contributing to the downfall of society as we knew it, so he invented the graham cracker as a weapon in the war against fatty, flavor-filled, and (above all) meat-based foods. Those were the foods he thought were fueling the lust of a nation and making a whole bunch of people want more sex than he thought was appropriate. (He followed a once-a-month guideline.)

While he admittedly had some good ideas to pass on to the world of the 1830s—ideas like drinking only clean water, bathing regularly, and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise—he also had plenty of ideas that were more on the crackpot side of things.

And that’s where vegetarianism came in.

Graham’s version of eating right was called the Graham Diet, and it was followed by the Grahamites. It included mostly fruits, vegetables, and only whole grains, forbidding things like meat, alcohol, and spices.

The biggest no-no was actually something that not only made a lot of people very angry, but was a rational fear: white bread.

At the time, white bread was seen as a higher-quality bread than whole wheat. The whiter it was, the better. Because it was the 1830s, that whiteness was often achieved in commercial bakeries by adding things like chalk, clay, and alum to flour.

The special wheat flour he created was the basis for his graham crackers, but it also earned him the ire of bakers and butchers who saw his rhetoric as a threat to their livelihoods.

Their fear was legitimate, too. The Grahamite Diet was a strict regimen of designated meals and mealtimes, but it was so popular that it was even adopted by Oberlin College as their official meal plan. (This ended with student protests and the firing of a professor who dared to use pepper on his food.)

Graham died in 1851, long before graham crackers went commercial, but his disciples, including Kellogg, kept up his work.

A member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kellogg soon opened the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the Michigan town of the same name. The first toasted wheat flakes were offered to sanitarium residents and a healthy snack to prevent tooth decay and stomach troubles. While one Kellogg brother went on to make a mint in the breakfast cereal industry, the other focused on a different aspect of clean, healthy living: fake meat.

The company Protose made a fake meat product from what we now call seitan and tofu, while members of the church decided they were going to make the fake meat into a more visually pleasing form. Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio, decided to make the meat into forms that are familiar today—hot dogs and burgers—and to season them like real meat would be.

That was well after the first vegetarian restaurant was founded, the appropriately named New York City eatery called the Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1 in 1895. While the first vegetarian chain restaurant (which was also focused on healthy, clean living) went bankrupt in the late 1920s, modern society seems to be catching up a bit.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: Looking to Quell Sexual Urges? Consider the Graham Cracker
Atlas Obscura: The History of Fake Meat Starts With the Seventh-day Adventist Church
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Sylvester Graham and Antebellum Diet Reform

  • https://rijulballal.wordpress.com Rijul Ballal

    Well to be fair this is only modern, western vegetarianism. People all the way from Greece to India were vegetarians because they were concerned about how animals were treated.

  • Катарина Савицкова

    Was this truly relevant to modern vegetarianism? I mean, this is just some people in America, which is just one country. Disregarding for the moment, places outside of Europe who have long traditions of vegetarianism, there have always been individuals who choosed not to eat meat.

    These people in America may have helped to make it more popular in America, but I think even this, can be questioned with relation to current vegetarianism, as I think its current popularity (in the West) has more and different factors than this.

    Remember, outside of America (and maybe UK) most people do not know what is a Graham cracker. We’ve probably got the same kinda thing, but with a different name. I don’t think 19th C religious fundamentalists in America had quite as much influence upon the world as you think they did.