Vegetarianism has not always been the way of the world. Although meats in times gone by – and, still, in some parts of the planet – weren’t always easy to come by, and less easy to afford, it would probably seem bizarre to most to turn down the opportunity to eat some. Religious or dietary reasons for meat restriction have existed for thousands of years, however more and more we are seeing people make the decision to refrain from meat, fish, and even other animal products for ethical reasons as well – or, perhaps, simply to “clean up” their diets.
Some of the earliest vegetarians were called Pythagoreans, named after the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (as in the Pythagorean theorem in geometry). His teachings were published in modern times by Antonio Cocchi, and in 1745 they were translated to English. However, the Pythagorean diet also appeared in a book by Porphyrys called On Abstinence from Animal Food, published in the 3rd century B.C.E. The significance of noting these publications is that the arguments made for prescribing to the vegetarian diet are by-and-large the same arguments that are upheld to this very day.
From the 19th century in England and America and onward, vegetarian societies cropped up, creating the name “vegetarian” as an alternative to Pythagorean. In Philadelphia in 1817, William Metcalfe of the Bible Christian Church planted a branch of this first vegetarian church in America. The father of Louisa May Alcott founded the first vegetarian commune in Fruitlands, Massachusetts. The more and more historical figures that got on board with the vegetarian train, the more and more the trend took roots across America. The publishing of The Jungle in 1906 gave a radical insight by Upton Sinclair on the disgustingly unsanitary meatpacking industry in the United States at that time. It inspired a wide array of people to turn away from eating meat, and in 1947 there was even a political group called the American Vegetarian Party that hoped to have success in the 1948 presidential election but did not.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were indeed the origin story of vegetarian cuisine as during this time, vegetarian-specific cookbooks began showing up on the shelves. For example, in 1910 E.G. Fultons published The Vegetarian Cookbook. These early meals typically included protose, a meat substitute created by John Harvey Kellogg, which appears to have been a combination of herbed wheat gluten, onion, and peanut butter. During these times, the focus was especially on how to satisfy the diet that no longer has meat content, but nutritionally it wasn’t always well-balanced. It wasn’t until the 1970s that cookbooks started to focus on the lack of protein in vegetarian meals and diets, at least in the way they had been adopted in the previous eras. Diet for a Small Planet, published by Frances Moore Lappés in 1971, introduced the ideas of high protein ingredients that are vegetarian but also natural, unlike protose. These ingredients included a variety of grains and beans, as well as peanuts. Each recipe highlighted the protein content within.
Similar to the 1971 cookbook’s approach, Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure in 1972 fought back against the idea that vegetarian recipes should be focused merely on how to substitute meat. She emphasized the need to celebrate ingredients that are not of meat origin, making the argument that a previously narrow approach to recipes and meals leaves people forgetting meat is not the centerpiece in a world filled with fantastic, meat-free ingredients. This very attitude called for a new culinary approach to vegetarian food that revolutionized the way food is made even to this day. It truly sparked the modern vegetarian cuisine we now see in the United States.
As chefs and recipe authors began exploring ways to create nutritionally-balanced and flavorful, standalone vegetarian dishes, an increasing amount of international influence was injected into the scene. For example, Indian cuisine in Indian is almost entirely vegetarian as it is, especially in famed northern Indian foods, which are rampant in restaurants around the U.S. Asian products like paneer and tofu became more popular and widely available. Soy production increased, less for feeding livestock, and now more for creating these products in the vegetarian food market. Beans increased in popularity as well, utilizing Latin flavors without the pork and instead displaying impressive flavors with cilantro, cumin, chilis, and cotija cheese. While some restaurants still treated vegetarian options as paltry salad dishes, other chefs took to the kitchen, resulting in a flooding of vegetarian-oriented, upscale restaurants all across the United States.
As a variety of companies began producing frozen meat-free options like veggie patties and “chicken” filets, chefs were opening entire establishments without the need of any meat orders at all. Some of these restaurants don’t shy away from the meat-like substitutes, embracing the idea that they do, in fact, taste like the very thing they’re mocking. It is now so popular with meat-eaters to order a protein-packed soy replacement that the fast-food restaurants around the country now offer it as an alternative. These vegan burgers can be ordered on the fly, but they can also be found at fancy sit-down establishments, served along with a side of slightly charred heirloom tomatoes, yucca fritas with aioli, and a smattering of rainbow radish pickles or crisped radicchio and brussel sprouts with soy demi-glaze.
Others yet, less concerned about the cries for nutritional balance, look for ways to make in-house substitutions. To continue the simple burger example, you may now find black bean burgers or beet patties, the binder being an array of chickpea, quinoa, or other grain. In these establishments, you might easily find a jackfruit BBQ sandwich, a tofu slab cooked just like it’s fish-n-chips or a vegan chili with beef crumbles. Some chefs have even searched long and hard to find such convincing alternatives that you might be mind-blown you’re not eating meat; for example, a half-chicken that not only tastes just like the real thing but which has been molded to look exactly like it too. Lastly, some five-star facilities remain entirely au natural, filling plates of bright colors and fresh ingredients, displayed across a homemade pesto dribble, and sprinkled with wildflower pedals.
Whatever vegetarian cuisine theory you favor, it is undeniable that good vegetarian food in the United States has had considerable evolution in recent years – and its thousands-of-years-old history is a testament to the likeliness that it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The new question then becomes: Where will it go next?