We welcome a guest post today from Adam D. Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921. Vegetarianism has been practiced in the United States since the country’s founding, yet the early years of the movement have been woefully misunderstood and understudied. In his lively history of early American vegetarianism and social reform, Adam D. Shprintzen chronicles the expansion and acceptance of vegetarianism in mainstream society. From Bible Christians to Grahamites, the American Vegetarian Society to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Shprintzen explores the diverse proponents of reform-motivated vegetarianism and explains how each of these groups used diet as a response to changing social and political conditions.
In a previous post, Shprintzen wrote about the surprising history of vegetarian athletes. In today’s post, he looks at reviews of the new meat alternative “Beyond Meat,” and discusses the history of faux meats beginning in the late nineteenth century.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently reported glowingly about Beyond Meat, a new meat alternative available on the market. Gates proclaimed that the product was so convincing in its poultry-like qualities that he “honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken.” The same product also apparently tricked New York Times food critic Mark Bittman, who explained that the faux chicken “fooled me badly in a blind tasting.” The fake chicken so resembled meat that Slate writer Farhad Manjoo believed that the brand’s faux chicken strips “look, feel and taste closer to real meat than any other food I’ve ever eaten.”
Somewhat remarkably, these accounts echo the descriptions of meat substitutes that appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the time period when faux meats were first invented and gained notoriety. The most popular of these creations—J. H. Kellogg’s concoction known as Protose—was marketed as being a product that “looks like meat, tastes like meat, smells like meat.” Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium and its corresponding experimental kitchen produced a variety of meat substitutes in addition to Protose during the 1890s, including Nuttose (ground nuts bound together by cereal grains), Granose (a wheat-based biscuit to be utilized as a faux-filet of beef) and Nuttolene (a vegetarian loaf made primarily of peanuts). Kellogg served these products at his Sanitarium, but also built a profitable business shipping these meat substitutes in cans throughout the United States directly to interested vegetarians and to be sold at health food stores.
A proliferation of vegetarian cookbooks at the end of the nineteenth century as well as—somewhat surprisingly—positive coverage by the popular press supported the products’ popularity and grew their renown. One vegetarian cookbook—written by famed author, food instructor, home economics advocate, and non-vegetarian Sarah Tyson Rorer—explained that her manual was intended to show “how to cook three meals a day without meat” using “vegetables with meat value. Vegetables to take the place of meat.” Mrs. Rorer—as she was popularly known—promised to provide recipes for “the best meat substitutes and their artistic and hygienic accompaniments.”
Included within Mrs. Rorer’s cookbook were recipes such as a faux sausage made from farina, pecans, and breadcrumbs; a mock veal roast comprised of lentils combined with breadcrumbs and peanuts; and a mock fish filet made from hominy grits blended together with nuts, eggs, onion, and parsley. Mrs. Rorer, reflecting the rising popularity of the vegetarian movement in the early years of the new, modern twentieth century, emphasized the possibilities apparent in mock meats, created through scientific study and experimentation. Through modern processes, meat substitutes, it was believed, could re-create the taste, smell, and even look of meat. For Mrs. Rorer’s mock turkey recipe, she even advised curious home epicures to mold her concoction into the shape of a turkey.
Meat substitutes expanded vegetarian dietetics during the Progressive Era, and with it the very nature of the vegetarian movement. Whereas the older generation of vegetarians from the antebellum era through the 1870s assailed all qualities of meat, a new generation of vegetarians accepted that meat had beneficial properties, particularly as a source of protein. In addition, the new vegetarians understood that the popular appeal of meat had much to do with its taste, one that meat substitutes aimed to recreate. This shift had profound implications for the vegetarian movement. New, more diverse food choices appealed to wider audiences than American vegetarians’ traditional fare of simple, plain meals. In the process, the vegetarian movement accepted that meat had positive aspects to be emulated. Meat substitutes attempted to provide these gustatory benefits while also ensuring a violence-free diet. In fact, early meat substitutes were positioned as being even more effective than meat in their strength- and muscle-building properties.
Vegetarianism became increasingly embraced by normative society during the Progressive Era, emphasized as a means to succeed in life and business alike. But the movement was only understandable through a lens of a carnivorous society, one that even expected its vegetarians to manipulate its grains, nuts and breadcrumbs into turkey legs. The shift had larger social and political implications for the vegetarian movement, disconnecting it from its more radicalized, communal reform-oriented past. Further, the development set the stage for a vegetarian movement that could monetize its lifestyle.
Thus today’s mass-marketed meat substitutes can be connected thematically directly to their progenitors. Perhaps no product exemplifies this continuity more than Morningstar Farms. In a twist of historical irony, the multinational Kellogg Company acquired Morningstar Farms—one of the most popular contemporary meat substitutes—in 1999. W. K. Kellogg, J. H.’s brother, founded the company in 1906, in response to an ideological split between the siblings over what substances could be included health foods. In recent years, Morningstar Farms has been at the center of a similar debate, receiving significant criticism from vegetarians and other ethical eaters about its use of genetically modified soy. The specific debates have changed, but just like modern meat substitutes can be connected directly to their early incarnations, so can the questions surrounding the balance between vegetarianism, healthy living, consumerism, and ethics.
Adam D. Shprintzen is editor of the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington at the Mount Vernon Estate and a historian specializing in nineteenth-century America. Visit his vegetarian history blog and follow him on Twitter @VegHistory.