A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times
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An epic of non-carnivorous restraint.

Stuart, a young British scholar, offers portraits of often little-known figures who would not eat anything with a mother or a face, and he blends these character studies with smart analyses of historical trends and the transmission of ideas. The earliest vegetarians in this account, from the 17th century, were mostly driven by religious ideas, though often with a strong scientific bent. For instance, Thomas Bushell, a disciple of the natural philosopher Francis Bacon, reasoned that, according to the Bible, humans lived to be 900 years old until after the Flood, when God gave them permission to eat meat, after which they started dying off at age 70; logic demanded that vegetarians therefore could live, if not to 900, to at least some greater age. To Judeo-Christian religious impulses, complicated by widespread contact with Hindu and other Indian ideas after the 17th century, were added ethical and proto-ecological arguments, with some maintaining that it was simply wrong to eat things that demonstrably had consciousness, and that creating feed for livestock was a wanton waste of natural resources. All these arguments are with us today, Stuart notes. Along the way, he identifies founding fathers of the self-help movement, including perhaps the first diet doctor in history. He looks into the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, moved by the rigor of Linnean science to argue that because women had only two breasts, as compared to, say, a wolf’s many teats, our kind is likely not innately carnivorous: “Breasts,” writes Stuart, “were not just symbols of gentle nourishment and innocence, they bore scientific testimony to humanity’s original herbivorous nature.” And he examines the effects of Darwinian theory on various strains of vegetarian thought, one of them the ideology propounded by Adolf Hitler, who seems to have thought that eating meat could “purify” him of any Jewishness flowing through his veins.

Culinary and cultural history intertwined: readable, and endlessly interesting.

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2007
ISBN: 0-393-05220-6
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2006