Read transcript of Ep 14: Diet Reform

German writing

Follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Traffic noise. Rustling sounds. Voices.]


I’m at my local health food shop in East London, surrounded by a cornucopia of modern vegan sausages and burgers, and mock-meats of every mock-animal. Not to mention supermarket staples, like peanut butter, almond butter, and breakfast cereal.

This show, we will discover how all this inventiveness goes back to a Mid-Western American company, and how it helped build a new consumer-focussed, all-American vegetarian movement.

We’ll also go to India to visit the ashram of Mahatma Gandhi, discover the original French anarchist vegan movement, and meet the celebrity vegetarian athletes of America’s gilded age.

[Theme starts: music with sound of gongs]

Ian [as narrator]:

Vegetarianism: The Story So Far. With me, Ian McDonald. Episode fourteen: Diet Reform.

[Theme ends]

Ian [in the shop]:

The story of the Western mock meats begins when the world doesn’t end.

Dr Adam Shprintzen:

So the Seventh Day Adventists are a movement that’s born out of a religious revival movement that pops up in the east coast of New England.

Ian [in shop]:

That’s historian Dr Adam Shprintzen at the University of Maryland. Many of the brands here – and I’m just opening the fridge up – are from Seventh Day Adventist businesses. Dr Shprintzen is talking at the studios of VMFM Pennsylvania, telling me about…


A prophecy that, literally the end of the world is coming in 1844.

Ian [to Shrpintzen]:

And they literally call this “The Great Disappointment”.


It is really like the best possible name for a failed religious vision.

Ian [as narrator]:

They fragment, and one section follows a woman called Ellen White.


And Ellen White is essentially the prophetess of the Seventh Day Adventist movement.

Ian [as narrator]:

“Seventh day” means they go to church on a Saturday and “Adventist” means they expect the second coming of Jesus Christ. Ellen explains to them why the world didn’t end.


Ostensibly she says that this moment in time was actually occurring on a different plane, that was happening on the spiritual plane, on the heavenly plane. And she is the one who has a vision and has a prediction of vegetarianism and of clean living being at the centre of this new movement known as Seventh Day Adventism.

Ellen White [read by actor]:

We have a duty to speak, to come out against intemperance of every kind – intemperance in working, in eating, in drinking, and in drugging – and then point them to God’s great medicine: water, pure soft water, for disease, for health, for cleanliness, and for luxury.


White herself was known to be a sort of heavy meat enthusiast before she has this vision. And the idea is that if you perfect your health, that you’re better preparing yourself to live in a godly way.

Ian [as narrator]:

Another vision inspires the Whites to make their base – Battle Creek Michigan – a centre of health and food reform. But it’s their young acolyte who will transform American vegetarianism. And it’s a name you probably know from the breakfast table.


So, John Harvey Kellogg is a follower of the Whites. He began working for them as a young boy, and he was seen by the Whites – Ellen and her husband – as being a real prodigy.

[sound of cereal box being shaken]

Ian [in shop]:

Yes that’s Kellogg, as in [shakes box] cornflakes. Though his brother made them popular by adding sugar to them, and they fell out over it… and we are ahead of ourselves.


So the Whites actually fund his education and send him off to get a classical medical education in the east coast and New York.

So that’s one interesting thing about Kellogg is that he is sort of pitching these very naturalistic ideals that to many seem quackish. But he also is a classically trained medical doctor and surgeon.

And Kellogg eventually becomes the first and actually the only superintendent of a institution known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium that will open up in Michigan in the early 1880s.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s like a posh health spa with a bit of actual hospital.


There is actual medical treatments going on there. But those medical treatments range from fresh air, Swedish massage, all the way to surgical procedures.

But most importantly he believed wholeheartedly in a vegetarian diet. And this was one component that for anybody who had a stay at the San, whether it was for two days or two weeks or a month, that there was no compromise on. That if you were staying at the San, you had to adhere to a vegetarian diet while you were in Battle Creek.


Tell me about the foods he invents.


At the San, he creates what’s known as the experimental kitchen, in 1883 with his wife Ella. And the idea was that, first to create dishes that would be pleasing to people when they stayed at Battle Creek.

But within about a decade he creates a mail-order catalogue company that’s sending these meatless products across the United States.

And what’s really interesting, and this marks a significant change from any previous vegetarians, [brass band music begins, in background] Kellogg markets his products as meat-substitutes.

Battle Creek Advert [read by alternating American actors]:

Protos, the tasty meat substitute…
Looks, smells, and tastes like meat,
yet has none of its harmful toxic effects!

Ian [as narrator]:

A mix of cereals, peanuts and gluten.


It’s sold in tin cans and was actually on the market in the United States all the way up unto about 2000.

Ian [in shop]:

So, in amongst the soups, in the tins, away from the noisy refrigerators, there’s something that was actually invented at Battle Creek Sanitarium.

On the tin, it’s got a different brand name, but it’s from a Seventh Day Adventist managed company, and it describes itself as a meat-free savoury loaf, made from peanuts.

[Bold, brass band music continues]

Battle Creek Advert [read by alternating American actors]:

Has a delicious meat flavour!

Ian [in shop]:

It’s still quite something to think that something that was invested at Battle Creek Sanitarium is still being sold in 2017.

[Music finishes]

[at home] So I’ve got some. And I’ve made it. I mean, the taste is slightly like thick soft white bread. Really dense, and soothing and warm. And the taste is a bit bland, I suppose like tofu, it depends what you do with it.

So I asked Adam what’s going on meanwhile, with organised American vegetarianism.


As all this is going on in Battle Creek, there’s also a rebirth of an organised movement in the United States with the Vegetarian Society of America.

There’s some interested reformers still attached to the Bible Christian Church who reach out to Henry S Clubb, the old veteran of the vegetarian movement, and offer him to come back to Philadelphia to lead the Bible Christian Church.

And Clubb decides to also bring forth a new national vegetarian organisation in America, starting off in Philadelphia, but expands throughout the United States within five years.

Ian [to Shprintzen]:

Before the civil war, vegetarianism had been linked with campaigns for votes for women, and similar progressive causes, like opposition to slavery. But what’s the movement like now?


By the 1880s and 1890s and moving forward into the 20th Century, vegetarianism is almost solely internally focussed.

In other words, it’s a movement that’s thinking about the reform of, and betterment of the self, for only the purpose of [laughs] bettering the self. To do things like create better personal health, but better personal health to succeed financially and socially.

This is a significant difference in terms of the values of vegetarianism as the movement pushes towards the turn of the 20th Century.

Ian [as narrator]:

Women’s main role in this apolitical American movement is writing recipes. In 1907, one woman writes to complain:

Reform woman [read by actor]:

Why do we make one reform topic a hobby and forget all others?
Mercy, prohibition, vegetarianism, women’s suffrage and peace would make Old Earth a paradise, and yet the majority advocate but one, if any, of these?


In the United States it’s almost entirely de-politicised, and largely connected with the upper class, with the philanthropic class.

It pays dividends for vegetarianism as a movement in America because it’s respected en masse for the first time.

But of course the question has to be, look at what do you have to sacrifice in order to become considered to be a successful movement in America. In a lot of ways, the ideological underpinnings of vegetarianism as a movement kind of whittle away in the face of its popularity.


What about animal ethics?


It’s amazing too because there is this, by the end of the 19th Century and into the early years of the 20th Century gonna see this massive growth of the anti-vivisection movement globally. And vegetarians are largely unconcerned with that in the United States.

Ian [as narrator]:

We heard last episode how, when people from across the world visit Chicago for the 1893 world’s fair, the American vegetarians host an international vegetarian congress, giving comrades from across the world a chance to meet.


It is the moment that the American movement connects physically with individuals from all over the globe.

Ian [as narrator]:

Some of Londoners we met last episode go to Chicago, including trade unionist and radical Annie Besant. She represents Theosophy, with its blend of western and eastern mysticism, at the World Fair’s parliament of religions.

And she reports her own psychic sense of the American meat industry.

Annie Besant [read by actor]:

And I was conscious suddenly as I sat there in the train of this sense of oppression that came upon me; … and then I remembered that I was coming into the great slaughter-house of the United States.

Ian [as narrator]:

She’s not wrong – ten years later, the socialist investigative journalist Upton Sinclair writes about the horrors of Chicago’s meatpacking district in The Jungle.


He has this very famous quote where he says, “I was aiming for people’s minds with the Jungle, but I hit them in the stomach.” So essentially, whereas it doesn’t create a massive sort of up-swelling of people questioning capitalism in America, it does make them question the quality of the meat that they’re getting on their plates.

Ian [as narrator]:

Like today, health scares drive vegetarianism. So when vegetables are described as pure food, it’s a real contrast to the stink and disease of meatpacking – for which Americans don’t need psychic powers.


It was as though one came within a physical pall of blackness and of misery – this psychic or astral result being, as it were; the covering that overspreads that mighty town.


So who is this global movement? At the World’s Fair, as well as individualistic Americans, we’d meet Chinese and Indian vegetarians like the Buddhists or Jains we’ve met in previous shows – as well as quite a few Indian travellers following their vegetarian caste traditions.

The British – as we heard touring London last show – tend to be active across reform topics. But what about mainland Europe?

Later on, we’ll discover the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and the French anarchists who create the first vegan movement.

But the rising tide that lifts vegetarianism in central Europe is the back-to-nature “Lebensreform” – “Life reform” movement. Historian Professor Julia Twigg.

Prof. Julia Twigg:

The German vegetarianism is very much linked with diet reform and nature cure ideas, ideas that we could live a healthier life and indeed cure ourselves of ills by living closer to nature.

So it might involve forms of walking, it might involve bathing, it might involve eating more in the way wholemeal foods, less in the way of processed, heavily cooked diet that was characteristic of the 19th Century.

So it’s often connected with ideas that have become familiar to us in the form of sunbathing. That this period there are radical movements in which there are light and air baths, which involve sitting in the sunshine, allowing the air to blow across your body.

Ian [as narrator]:

Lebensreform draws together opposition to alcohol and to tobacco; it overlaps with the wholefood ideas of people like Thomas Allinson in London, and the nature cure ideas link up with people like John Harvey Kellogg.

[in the shop] For example, back in the shop, this [sound of cereal packet shaken] is Muesli, popularised by a Swiss Lebensreform doctor, called Maxmillian Bircher – who is also a water curist, importing special baths from Kellogg in the United States. He also disagrees with killing animals ethically, but, perhaps to avoid seeming ideological, he doesn’t even mention it until he’s sixty.

[in studio] The more organised Lebensreformers set up a community near Berlin, the famous Vegetarian Orchard Settlement Eden, to be an example to mainstream society.

As well as fruit juice and jam, crucially for vegetarians it sells a margarine made out of vegetable oil rather than beef fat.

And though its doors open to meat-eaters in 1903, it’ll stay really important to organised vegetarianism.

In the early 20th Century, the more anarchic end of the Lebensreform spectrum gathers at a place in southern Switzerland they name Monte Verità, “mount truth”, including a monastery of Theosophists into Annie Besant’s Eastern mysticism, a vegetarian anarcho-communist commune, and nudists.

By then, [sound of crowd cheering begins in background] there’s a new muscular trend in American vegetarianism, that’s grown out of an older German fitness movement.

[Crowd cheering becomes louder]

This crowd at the 2013 Berlin Vegan and Vegetarian Summerfest are cheering on Germany’s strongest man, Patrik Baboumian, as he bears over half a metric tonne, repeating his record-breaking yoke walk in a t-shirt saying “I am a Vegan Badass”.

Modern vegans point to an array of weightlifters, footballers, and ultramarathon runners, and over a hundred years earlier, vegetarians aren’t so different.

The gymnasium was brought to America by 19th Century German migrants, and a physical culture movement of diet and exercise spread. Adam Shprintzen.


So by the 1880s and 1890s this has become established for Americans who aren’t of German descent. It’s part of the landscape throughout the United States. And vegetarianism becomes indelibly linked to this movement by the 1890s as a diet that can create incredible strength, physicality, as well as personal success.

Ian [as narrator]

Like 21st Century vegans, vegetarian magazines celebrate athletic feats on vegetarian diets: strongmen like Gilman Low and Lionel Strongfort; George Corsan, who teaches North America to swim; the long-distance walking champion Karl Mann.


I think absolutely at the top of your… guy by the name of Bernarr MacFadden. [Ragtime music begins in background – piano and brass] MacFadden was a leader of the physical culture in the United States.

Ian [as narrator]:


Bernarr MacFadden [read by actor]:

Weakness is a crime. Don’t be a criminal!


And he was a weightlifter, he played American Football.

He also was involved in these exhibitions of strength and power that became popular in the United States at the turn of the century, where literally they would just go on stage in front of audiences, and put on these incredible feats of strength, lifting up a platform with ten people piled on it, something like that.

And MacFadden becomes the leading advocate for physical culture in the United States with his magazine, Physical Culture magazine.

What’s interesting about MacFadden as he relates to vegetarianism is that he advocates for the diet through the pages of his magazine, yet he himself is no particular ideological vegetarian.

[Ragtime music continues]


The consensus of opinion today is that the best diet for a man is what is known as the lacto-vegetarian diet.


He also sometimes admits that he believes that meat consumption can be beneficial. He goes on fasting diets. He goes on an all-grape diet. So he is…

Ian [to Shprintzen]:

He also sometimes eats meat. [Laughs] He’s not actually a vegetarian.


Correct. So there’s this real irony that the person who is gaining the most attention for proliferating vegetarian ideals in the United States, by 1905 is actually no vegetarian himself [laughs]. This says something about the nature of the movement at this time, that it’s so non-ideological that there isn’t even a litmus test to have to be a vegetarian to proclaim the benefits of vegetarianism.

Ian [as narrator]:

When Henry Stephen Clubb is interviewed by Bernarr Macfadden’s magazine, it’s about his vigour. The title is:

Physical Culture article [read by actor]:

Youthful at Eighty-two.


He’s still the President of the Vegetarian Society of America.

Physical Culture article:

He handles a heavy correspondence and preaches every Sunday. He walks from five to ten miles every day.


Whereas Clubb himself is quoted criticising meat, it’s not his longstanding views on cruelty – but as a source of gout and food poisoning, using the scientific language of the day.

Henry S Clubb [read by actor]:

Meat contains uric acid and ptomaine poisons. Cereals constitute a pure food.


I think that my favourite example of the connections between vegetarianism and physical culture and sport, relates to the 1907 University of Chicago American Football team.

And the team was coached by a guy by the name of Amos Alonzo Stagg who believed in, sort of, this idea of what was known as “muscular Christianity”. Sport as a way to create moral individuals.

And in 1907 he makes it mandatory that all his players train and utilise a vegetable diet for the year. And it seems to work because they actually win their conference championship during that season.

[cheering fades in]


They are nicknamed the Vegetarians – and this is an actual fan chant:

Maroons Fans [read by actor, above cheering]:

Sweet potatoes, rutabagas, sauerkraut, squash!
Run your legs off, Cap’n De Tray!
Sure, our milk fed men, by gosh!
Will lick ‘em bad today!

Ian [as  narrator]:

Henry Clubb himself dies at the age of 94.


In 1921. which kind of spells the end of vegetarianism as an organised movement in America for up until probably the 1970s.

[Russian music begins and continues in background]


The wider world still contains some vegetarians motivated by asceticism as well as ethics, seeking a simple life of modest needs. But now, fewer of them are in organised religious orders, and more of them owe something to back-to-nature Lebensreform ideas. The most famous around the world is the Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy.

In 1878, the writer of War and Peace emerges from a near-suicidal existential crisis searching for meaning, discovering it in the Christian gospels. But a stripped-down Christianity, without miracles, in which Jesus is simply a teacher, with a radical call to abandon your worldly goods and love thy neighbour.

Count Leo Tolstoy [read by actor]:

The Christian virtues, commencing with self-renunciation, rise through devotion to the will of God, to love.


Tolstoy believes if someone takes up a righteous life, it is one step at a time – starting with vegetarianism.


His first act of abstinence is from animal food, because, not to mention the excitement of the passions produced by such food, it is simply immoral, as it requires an act contrary to moral feeling – killing – and is called forth only by greed and gluttony.


In the face of excommunication and distrust, Tolstoy inspires vegetarians around the world. Some of them set up communes – one of them is still around, in Yorkshire England.

Tolstoy’s most famous fan is Mohandas K Gandhi – with whom we’ll catch up in a moment.

After we have seen the impact of the First World War on vegetarianism.

For example, let’s take a Scottish man whose reactions to the war, indeed his life, bridge many of these vegetarianisms – including New England Transcendentalists from a couple of shows ago and Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism.

Dugald Semple [read by actor]:

Let us aim therefore at the highest in diet, if we would reveal the divine in his living temples.


Dugald Semple lives in a caravan in the countryside near Glasgow, growing what he can, earning money by journalism and giving talks, for example about nutrition and natural history.


The First World War broke out in 1914, and though a pacifist for religious reasons, I nevertheless felt it my duty to offer my services in a civil capacity to help my country.

First of all, I obtained a Government permit to give lectures on “Food Economy” along the Ayrshire coast, provided my caravan had no lights shining and was removed inland at night. Several of my pacifist friends thought that was just helping the war effort.


Julia Twigg.


Pacifism becomes a really important theme within the vegetarian movement. It has obvious links, because vegetarianism is against killing of animals and that extends very easily to concern over general death.


Many conscientious objectors are vegetarian; most get a raw deal.

[London street noise]

Ian [outside in London]:

I’ve always really liked this statue, even though I didn’t find out who it was until I did this project.

I’m in Red Lion Square in the middle of London. And what’s great about this is it doesn’t flatter its subject physically, but the energy is amazing. He looks dishevelled, it’s very rough-hewn. He’s got a slight paunch, they’re sculpting him in old age.

But he’s holding a massive wad of leaflets I think, and holding his hand aloft as he makes a dramatic oratorical point. The name of the statue is Fenner Brockway. He would have been 97 when this was put up.

[in studio] During World War One, Fenner is a twenty-something socialist, vegetarian, pacifist anti-war campaigner. Imprisoned, he goes on a partial hunger strike, refusing flesh meals until he’s given vegetarian food. Though both Britain and Germany offer civilians vegetarian rations, that doesn’t cover prisoners like Fenner. And some vegetarians in the army are dependent on food parcels from home.

But vegetarianism spreads particularly amongst the pacifist Quakers. Julia Twigg.


This is the period when Quakers really become, quite a number of them, vegetarian. So the link with Quakerism and vegetarianism really is forged in the First World War, when there is a movement to a much more overt form of pacifism, that fits with the wider pacifist movements of the 20s and 30s.

Ian [as narrator]:

Dugald Semple is lucky.


After stating that I had always been opposed to war on religious grounds, and that my food lectures were supported by the Food League and other authorities, Sheriff Wilson granted me exemption as long as I continued to give lectures on food economy.


Vegetarian cookery is now, for European allies, part of the war economy.

Denmark is blockaded and unable to import food. The old school nutritionists are recommending the level of protein intake that we’d now associate with bodybuilders.

But vegetarian nutritionist Dr Mikkel Hindhede disagrees, and convinces Denmark to sell or slaughter its cattle, shut down most of its alcohol production, and use their stores of grains and vegetables to feed people instead.

He publishes the results of the, quote, “experiment” in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1920.

Mikkel Hindhede [read by actor]:

Most of the population was living on a milk and vegetable diet.


Denmark not only avoids the kind of famines that happen in Germany and Austria, but also mortality drops by a third. It can’t just be because of reducing alcohol. Dr Hindhede writes:


I am convinced that overnutrition, the result of palatable meat dishes, is one of the most common causes of disease.


Reformers can now point to Denmark, and countries with meat rationing, to open up the medical debate about animal protein. New discoveries about vitamins, minerals, and fibre also back-up the food reformers up on the importance of fruit and veg.

Developments followed with interest by our old friend Mohandas K Gandhi. He returns to India just before the start of the First World War. [Recording fades in, outside place with birdsong, and with distant traffic noise] To discover more I travelled to his ashram, in Ahmedabad, in the strongly vegetarian northwest of India.

Megha Todi:

So, we need to understand that before Gandhi moved to Ahmedabed he was in South Africa. And he’d already established an ashram there. And when he moved here, this was a very conscious decision to come and be a part of what was happening in the country, and to see it firsthand.

Ian [as narrator]:

I’m with Megha Todi, a researcher at the Gandhi archives.

[to Todi] and we’re looking…


So right now where we are, we’re looking towards the river, towards the Sabarmati River. This is called the Sabarmati Ashram because it came up on the banks of the Sabarmati River.

They say this is a museum. There’s a bookstore, a library, and his archives. And there are some buildings as they were a hundred years back.

Ian [as narrator]:

The original buildings are single story, white and red plaster and wood with low tiled roofs. The modern museum approximates that in brick.

Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy’s ideas around finding God through love, and by his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Tolstoy publicly supported Gandhi in his campaign to liberate the Indians of South Africa from racist laws; and Gandhi’s vegetarian ashram there was called Tolstoy Farm.

[to Todi] So what would we see if we were there in the 1920s when this was a working ashram?


So there would be a lot more people, for one. And there would be a lot more activity. Because this was supposed to be a self-sustainable community.

The city was across the river, so this would be on the suburb of the city. And this would be a very self-sustainable place. There would be khadi [cloth] spinning and weaving happening. There would be huge community kitchen, where women would be cooking. There would be farming. Vegetation happening. There’s learning. There are kids who are learning, going to school together. There are teachers here.

Ian [as narrator]:

Last show, we met Mohandas Gandhi as a young law student in London, part of the London Vegetarian scene. I caught up with historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha when he was in London, to ask him how that affected Gandhi.

Ramachandra Guha:

Well I think there are several layers at which you have to understand Gandhi’s interaction with London’s vegetarians when he’s here as a student between 1888 and 1891.

The first is, that they were a community to which he could belong. But beyond the ascetic, philosophical, moral aspects of vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Society of London did two very important things for Gandhi.

One is, it introduced him to his first English friends. Which grew into a, what was to become a much more important realisation and mark of his political philosophy. Namely, that while Indians must oppose the British Empire, Englishmen necessarily are not evil, and there can be many good, and caring people among them.

The second way in which vegetarianism is important in Gandhi’s political and intellectual revolution is that his first articles were published in the Journal of the Vegetarian Society. So that’s when he learned to craft an argument, to write. And of course he was, throughout his later life, an editor, a journalist, a publicist, and the writer of books too.

So the London Vegetarian Society did a great deal more to Gandhi than merely refine his views on vegetarianism. They were fundamental to his political programme and political


Megha Todi.


So in 1915 is when he moved to this place.


By now, his old acquaintance from the London Vegetarian Society, Annie Besant, has become a leader in the movement for Indian self-rule.

She’s now in Madras leading the Theosophists, and encouraging her followers to go vegetarian. When she’s imprisoned for agitating for Indian home rule, Gandhi joins the successful campaign to free her.

But in the end, it’s his radical vision that inspires the nation. Not just Besant’s law-abiding plea for dominion under the British empire, but independence, obtained through peaceful disobedience to unjust British laws.


So this is, this is Gandhi’s room as it was, with his little writing desk.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s got the wheel on which he spun his own thread, a symbol of Indian self-reliance. And you can also hear men working on the roof.

[to Todi] so this is where he wrote.


Where he wrote. This is where he met all his visitors, all his important leaders across from the country. Everybody who came to the ashram, this is where he would receive them.

Ian [as narrator]:

The vows everyone at the Ashram took are displayed by Gandhi’s house.


These are our specific vows.

Mohandas Gandhi [read by actor Harish Bhimani]:

Truth; non-violence; chastity; non-stealing; non-possession.

Ian [as narrator]:

Those five are the vows of Hindu or Jain monks we met at the start of the series.

[to Todi] So the vow of vegetarianism really is an implication of the vow of non-violence.


Yes. Non-violence, or love. Mere non-killing is not enough, the active part of non-violence is love.

Ian [as narrator]:

But Gandhi adds vows that are about the India he’s trying to build.


Removal of untouchability.


His political experiments could have been altered, but this for him was a very personal space. His experiments, whether in terms of accepting the Untouchable family, in terms of community, all of that would happen here.

Ian [as narrator]:

There’s an obvious connection between non-violence in diet and non-violence in politics. Gandhi requires his supporters to eschew political violence, but his vegetarian advocacy is very much a soft sell. Still, it did work on me – his autobiography provoked my decision to go vegetarian.

Gandhi states he’s not just motivated by chaste Hindu asceticism for its own sake, but…


Equally anxious to devote the maximum of time to the Satyagraha struggle…


Non-violent civil disobedience.


… and fit myself for it by cultivating purity. I was therefore led to make further changes and to impose greater restraints upon myself in the matter of food.


He simplifies his diet. He stopped having spices. He moved further and further away from even eating cereals and carbohydrates, towards eating fruit and nuts.


I know we must all err.


He gave up drinking milk, because you know, it was felt that the extraction of milk was injurious to the cows.


I have made that experiment times without number.


And then he almost died. In hospital the doctor said he had to have milk as a supplement. So he finally compromised and had goats’ milk. But he never had cows’ milk as an adult.


Of course, 21st Century dietitians say that a well-planned vegan diet is healthful, and Gandhi already knew successful vegans like Dugald Semple. Without speculating on his illness, we know that Gandhi said of drinking milk…


That has been the tragedy of my life.


In 1930, Gandhi leaves Ahmedabad on a protest march through India about a salt tax, becomes a figurehead of national liberation, and the rest is history.

[Birds singing. Water bubbling.]

In the Anarchist communes near Paris, from the early 20th Century, they argue about abstinence.

Louis Rimbault [read by actor]:

In this essentially anarchist space, there were intense struggles between carnivores and vegetarians.


This is anarchist Louis Rimbault. Perhaps inspired by Tolstoy, the vegetarian back-to-nature anarchists want both to liberate themselves from capitalism, and support its victims in the rest of the animal kingdom.


It was difficult to cover the costs of the commune due to the expensive demands and demoralising practices of the drinkers of wine, beer, coffee and tea; the eaters of meat, charcuterie, fish, poultry and packaged food; and the lovers of eggs, milk, butter, cheese, chocolate, pastry, confectionaries and so on.

These needless things forced community members to resort to their own plot, to scrounging, and to other expedients unworthy of men who were trying to live an example of liberation.


The word they use for this diet, far stricter than my veganism, is végétalisme – roughly speaking “vegetablearian”.

Louis spends time in prison thanks to his association with a gang of vegetarian armed robbers; helps set up a vegan nudist commune at Bascon; and propounds a salad called Basconnaise of greens, beans and potatoes that’s he says is a complete meal.


Go végétalien! Liberate yourself!


In 1923, an older anarchist couple, George Butaud and Sophie Zaikowska, start a chain of cafés cum hostels cum meeting places serving the Basconnaise salad, soup, and veg; as well as a society and magazine.

George Butaud [read by actor]:

The enlightened individualist practicing végétalisme transforms his space by transforming himself.


Végétalisme is deeply political. Sophie Zaikowska writes in the anarchist encyclopedia…

Sophie Zaikowska [read by actor]:

The végétalien diet is appealing, ethical, attractive, and undeniably, even through [actor pronounces as “though”] its effects, socially liberating… Because it allows an individual to live apart from society or to support the struggle against capitalists for longer, for example in the event of a strike, et cetera.


But it goes far beyond animal products.


Végétaliens prefer the natural flavours of fruits and vegetables over any kind of spice. Do not use white sugar. Natural water, not boiled.


Bascon survives as a guesthouse and education centre until 1951, by which time our anarchists have passed away. The French word for a vegan diet is still végétalien.

In Germany and Britain in the 20s and 30s, vegetarianism benefits from a renewed spirit of fresh air, sandals, and lebensreform. Julia Twigg.


I the inter-war years we get progressive schools and new kindergartens in which children are sent out into the sunlight to gain all the benefits of that.


Reformers including Theosophists found three vegetarian schools in the leafy home counties around London. The Theosophical School will last, renamed St Christophers but still vegetarian, into the 21st Century.


And at a visual level that’s very much how the vegetarians present themselves. It’s very much a movement about light and freshness and newness. And they draw on the aesthetic of the inter-war years, that clear, pure, clean architectural aesthetic.

Ian [to Twigg]:

In my completely omnivorous family that was slightly shocked by my vegetarianism, the one thing that was related to it was that my grandma was vegetarian in the 1930s. But… And I have this image of it connected with sunshine and bicycling and…




[youth] hostelling … but, tell me about the movement then.


I think it’s very much connected with those ideas of fresh air, of getting out into the sunlight, of hiking, of getting out of the big Victorian cities, out into the fresh air. It’s a health movement, and it’s a positive health movement, and so it draws on all those things.

But it’s also a whole set of imagery because a lot of this is rooted in anti-Victorianism. It’s about throwing off the dustiness, the darkness, the drapes, the curtains, the ornaments, all that.

So at a visual level it’s about this sunshine, freshness, new beginnings. And very often expressed in the use of undyed linen, wooden furniture, a return to nature and natural products.


Meanwhile, in Britain, some Socialist vegetarians, such as Fenner Brockway, have entered parliament.


Interestingly that connection very strongly with the political left in Britain isn’t necessarily so strong in other parts of the world. So in continental Europe in the other area where vegetarianism is strong, which is Germany, it’s not so necessarily connected with the left. It has a strong left presence but it also has a right-wing presence.

[Slow, sad, instrumental music begins in background]


On the left, there’s a Federation for Radical Ethics that embraces vegetarianism as well as pacifism and internationalism; and a Federation for Socialist Struggle that runs vegetarian restaurants. One of its members, Walter Fleiss, flees to Britain in 1934 when he discovers his name is on the Gestapo list. With his wife, they set up the Vega [pronounced Vee-ga’] restaurant that might help inspire the word “vegan”.

But some Lebensreformers, including some in the leadership of the Orchard Settlement Eden, are sympathetic to the right-wing blood and soil end of Lebensreform – and the Nazis.

For example, in 1934, the founder of the Federation for Radical Ethics, exiled in Switzerland, offers to pass someone in Eden some books, but is told to promise in writing not to send anything that might get them into trouble with the Nazis.

Eden resident [actor reading]:

You know, these days everyone’s being watched closely in Eden, too.


That year, Hitler orders all Lebensreform groups – including the vegetarian societies, to incorporate themselves into the Nazi Lebensreform movement.


He suppresses the German vegetarian society. But then he does that because he suppresses all independent societies in Germany.


In early 1935 Germany’s federations of vegetarian societies decided to close themselves down whilst they still can.

When that year’s international vegetarian congress, in Denmark, criticises the Nazi regime, the head of the Nazi Lebensreform movement, Muller, responds by mocking their internationalism and pacifism, claiming to have an account of German vegetarians travelling to the congress on the train.

[Sound of train moving along tracks]

Muller [read by actor]:

Men and women in bizarre costumes, carrying cardboard boxes and parcels, not forgetting their uniform of green coarse woollen coats.

Shirts hanging loose and long manes removed all doubt that this is “unnatural life” in action.


The Nazi life reform movement that has no concern with individualism or compassion, but really simply focussed on physical exercise to strengthen the volk.

And though it’s of no consequence for the wider movement, I should mention Hitler’s own habits. He was portrayed as a vegetarian in the 1930s but of the “special kind” that also eats ham.


The vegetarian society in Britain in this period and during the war denies that Hitler is a vegetarian in his practice. And you can understand why.


But in the 1940s, in private, there are multiple eyewitnesses like his poison tester who say he was a strict vegetarian – and tapes of him decrying the killing of animals for food. Even whilst he oversees the death and murder of millions, including other animals.

Of course, this massive irony cuts both ways. We could ask how a man capable of making an ethical decision towards animals couldn’t apply that to the millions killed in his wars and genocides. Or we could say that killing animals for food was so obviously wrong that even Adolf Hitler realised it.

On the other side of the war, a hundred thousand Brits request vegetarian ration cards. And despite decades without a national vegetarian society, American vegetarianism persists. Adam Shprintzen.


A pretty remarkable poll was taken by the Gallup organisation in 1943. It’s said between two and a half and three million Americans self identified as being vegetarians. That was about two percent of the total American population at the time.

Now this isn’t massive, but this is certainly a pretty remarkable growth in this movement that started off so small in America in 1817.

[Song “Nature Boy” begins, accompanied by acoustic guitar. Continues in background]

Singer Jennifer Orna: 

There was a boy… [fades]


Some back-to-nature Lebensreform hikers move to California, then the exotic edge of the West, eating mostly raw, living part naked. This song is by Eden Ahbez, an American who moves to California, falls in with the nature boys. He plays the song on a piano in a raw vegetarian restaurant run by a nature cureist who learnt the techniques of Kellogg.

And that’s where those ideas stay, waiting to be reborn in the counterculture of the 1960s.  In our next and final episode, we take the story up to date with that surge in vegetarianism. And the rise of the vegans.

With the Music of Robb Masters, Stefano Ligoratti, and Jennifer Orna, and the voices of Brian Roberts, Ian Russell, Guillaume Blanchard, Orna Klement, and – as Mohandas K Gandhi – Harish Bhimani.

[music fades back in]

Singer Jennifer Orna:

The greatest thing
you’ll ever learn
is just to love
and be loved in return.


You can follow veganoption on Facebook and Twitter, and find out more at theveganoption dot org. Including background notes on making the show, more information I couldn’t get into the episodes.

And a list of some of the books I found really useful, and if you buy them the show gets a commission which will help with production costs and ongoing hosting.

And if you like the show, please let people know. Review on iTunes or your podcast provider. Share on social media. Not that many folk know about the series, and a lot of people who start listening really like it. And it’s quite an undertaking, so that would be amazing if you would.

And thank you very much for listening.

[song ends]


This transcript was posted September 3 2019, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Featured image is from the 1934 postcard from an anonymous resident of the Eden community, near Berlin. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

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"The Vegan Option Vegetarianism: The Story So Far - A Radio History