Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/November 1893/Vegetable Diet



I DO not write this paper with the intention of converting or even convincing anybody, for nobody is more impressed with the great truth that what is good for one person is not good for all. The infinite individuality of the human race is what distinguishes it from animals. A certain kind of food will be liked and digested by all animals belonging to the same species, while, as an eminent doctor remarked the other day, there is not one article of food in the whole world which is eaten with pleasure by every human being alike. All I wish to do is to put my experiences before those to whom they may be useful, and who may profit by them without making the disagreeable mistakes my ignorance led me into.

I have all my life thought that meat-eating was objectionable from the aesthetic point of view. Even as a child the fashion of handing around a huge grosse pièce on an enormous dish revolted my sense of beauty; and I was delighted when, on my first visit to England, a small and thin slice of beef was unobtrusively shown to me behind my left shoulder, to be accepted or rejected ad libitum. I quite agree with Lord Byron, who said he would not marry a pretty girl because she had asked for two helps of lobster salad, though if beefsteak had been substituted I should understand it better still. The biftek à l'anglaise, which seems to be the only idea a foreign waiter ever has when he is asked to suggest something to eat to English-speaking travelers, is simply a piece of hot raw meat, far more fit for the Zoölogical Gardens than for human food; for, despite of constant and sometimes indignant disclaimers, it is generally believed on the Continent that it forms the staple food of the British nation—that the strong limbs of the young men, the lovely complexions of the girls, and the bright eyes of the children are entirely due to this nourishment, and anxious mothers of families abroad are constantly impressing upon their offspring and everybody else about them the utility and necessity of this panacea, if they wish to be in good health and feel fit and strong. It is a curious fact that in places where this regimen of viande saignante is followed anæmia is very frequent.

I have been told, though I have not read it myself, that somebody has written a description of a town where the whole population was vegetarian. The change this would make in all the sights and smells is far greater than we at first imagine. The ghastly butchers' shops which meet one at every turn appear to me an incongruity, not to say more, in this civilized age; they would disappear, as well as the fishmongers', which are hardly any better. Then there are the sausage shops, which, especially in southern countries, persecute one with their pungent odor. How often have I been driven away while admiring the façade of an old palazzo or the portico of an ancient church by the emanations of the terrible pizzicheria half-way down the street! Another dread sight which meets our eyes abroad, especially in Germany and Austria, where much veal is eaten, are the slaughtered calves paraded about the streets, a dozen or two of them hanging over the sides of the cart. There can be little doubt, too, that our kitchens and dining-rooms would be far more sweet and attractive if no animal food was ever brought into them. The eyes certainly would be gainers, and our olfactory senses too. In pictures and in poetry the tables are laid out with luscious fruit and sparkling wines, whenever charming and pleasant scenes are to be conjured up before our minds. When coarseness and discomfort are portrayed, "men brought in whole hogs and quarter-beeves, and all the hall was dim with steam of flesh." It is the difference between one of Giulio Romano's garden banquets, such as he painted in the vaulted chambers of the Palazzo del Te, and a peasant orgy by Ostade or Teniers.

It is not, however, this aspect of the Pythagorean régime which will make many converts, nor did it ever influence me for very long, as most doctiors lay, or rather laid, about twenty years ago, so much stress upon the eating of sufficient meat and the anæmic tendency of this generation, that one naturally felt it one's first duty to prefer health to beauty.

A more serious consideration, and one which grew upon me every year, was the sad and distasteful necessity of killing a living being in order to live one's self. The great mystery of pain in this world, which if it once gets a hold upon the mind is so terribly difficult to shake off, often dimmed my greatest pleasures. But this feeling too I tried, but less successfully, to subordinate to what I then considered right and reasonable.

The first serious shock I experienced in this theory was when, a few years ago, one of the most eminent German professors from a great university dined at our table, and would not touch anything because he was a vegetarian. I looked over the bill of fare, and realized with consternation that everything down to the sweet was either meat or fish or fowl, that vegetables and farinaceous food played the very smallest part in it, and even they were tainted with sauces not free from reproach.

I had the evening before listened to an historical discourse delivered by Prof. O—— to an audience of all that is most intelligent and distinguished in this city. I had been struck by his extraordinary vigor and clearness. The words dropped like pearls from his lips, and though the voice was scarcely raised it appeared to search out the remotest corners of the hall. Every rounded-off sentence presented a vivid picture to the mind. The subject was the chancellor Prince Metternich, and we all felt when, after an hour and a half, Prof. O—— ended apparently quite as fresh and collected as when he began, that we not only knew the prince personally, but that we understood his politics and the workings of his mind far better than his contemporaries had done. The thing which, however, impressed me most, was the sense of power held back, and to the good as it were, which the professor gave me while speaking, and even after he had finished. When, therefore, the next day he told me that he never touched animal food, I was very curious to hear his experiences.

He told me that some years before he had been very ill, nigh unto death, and given up by all the doctors. Then came one who said he could cure him. All the strong soups and beef jellies and raw minced meat were eliminated and replaced by fruit and light farinaceous food, but fruit especially, and he soon got well and strong so well and strong, indeed, that he determined to go on with his simple fare, especially as he felt an unwonted ease and extraordinary lucidity of the intellect when working. His wife, he told me, soon followed his example, and also his daughters and sons-in-law. At last his servants came and said they would like to be vegetarians too, as it seemed to agree so well with their masters. I felt that where so clever a man was so fully convinced of the expediency and efficiency of this diet that he carried his whole family and household with him, he must have gone into the question deeply, and have the very best reasons upon which to found his belief. I could not enter with him into further discussion, as he had to leave Vienna, but he sent me some books on the subject. These books were German, and they would be well worth translating, for their whole tone is like a bracing mountain air. In every one of them vegetable diet is the foundation whereon is built an edifice of hygiene, which if we could or would but strictly follow might bring us to a pinnacle of animal spirits and bodily vigor only to be compared to the centaur of Henri de Guérin. To those who have not read this charming fragment, let me recommend it as a tonic on a day of languor and prostration. The thorough enjoyment of life and strength in which the centaur revels while careering over wind-swept plains, down breezy mountain-sides, plunging into deep green forests with the scent of the earth and wood flowers in the air, is better than any dose of sal volatile or quinine. These little German books, for none of them are very long, have mainly for their object to bring us back to a healthier and simpler mode of life. They are full of cold water and open windows by day and by night. Sun-baths and air-baths in the woods and on the hills, swimming and gymnastics, everything on the simplest and most economical lines, as they are mainly written for schools and the middle classes, where expensive adjuncts must be omitted. No medicines are tolerated by the strict vegetarian; everything is cured by diet, exercise, water, hot or cold, or in the shape of steam.

There are now all over Germany and Austria a great number of what are called "Nature doctors," who cure on these principles, though they need not necessarily be vegetarians. The poor prefer them, as they are often men well off, who have a vocation for this calling; the medicaments cost very little or nothing. Father Sebastian Kneipp, at Wörichshofen in Swabia, belongs to this class, and the thousands he cures every year have made his name famous in all the German-speaking lands. He too deprecates the use of much meat. Everywhere baths and sanatoriums are springing up where cures with these simple means alone are effected, and medicines utterly discarded. The Hygeia, a publication founded by the well-known Dr. Paul Niemeyer, and edited at Munich by his disciple and successor. Dr. Gerster, is one of the many organs of the new and independent school; many doctors and a few laymen write in it. It is interesting and amusing, full of unexpected information, and much read by the most intelligent section of the public. The German vegetarian books are full of a number of excellent recipes for dishes of all kinds, suited to every time of the year and to different countries, which is most important, for the new-fledged vegetarian always thinks he is going to die of hunger. In the preparation of vegetables the German Pythagoreans bear off the palm, and I am bound to say that even their puddings and sweets are better than those known to the meat-eater. From what I have heard of English vegetarianism, I fancy that the movement, which in many respects might prove so useful, is much impeded by the inadequate way in which the vegetables are cooked, and until this defect is thoroughly remedied, and a greater variety is introduced into the vegetarian bill of fare, there is no prospect of an extension, which might prove so great a boon to the poorer classes.

In spite of the persuasive language of my books, and the promise of health and happiness, I could not, somehow, make up my mind to take a step which I imagined would in a certain way cut me off from my fellow-creatures; and it was not till rather more than a year ago, when I was obliged to read up certain papers about the transport of cattle and slaughter-houses, that the irresistible conviction came upon me that I must choose between giving up the eating of animal food or my peace of mind.

Years ago, when I lived in Italy, this same subject had given me much pain. At Rome it was the habit for every butcher to have his own boys in the slaughter-houses to kill the cattle. These boys were often unskillful or not strong enough. When the beautiful milk-white oxen, with their large, pathetic black eyes, were brought to be slaughtered, these butcher boys had often to give thirty blows before the poor beast fell. Every animal that was brought into the town paid by weight at the octroi, but they were generally kept waiting for days in sheds outside the town. In these sheds there were drinking-fountains always running, but the plug at the bottom was taken out, so as to prevent the animals from drinking, and thus their weight was lightened. The railway companies never dreamed of watering the cattle during the many days that they were packed together in the trucks, sweltering and faint under the fierce Italian sun. The Roman Society for Protection of Animals sent a dozen pails to Foligno, a central railway station, offering to pay a certain sum annually for the watering of the cattle. The pails were returned after two years, never having been used once. Nor are things much better in this country. The cattle which come up from Transylvania and other distant parts of the empire are neither fed nor watered on the journey, which sometimes takes a week. Then when unshipped they are tied together in threes and fours, hit and frightened, and thus driven to the slaughter-houses. They sometimes fall down in the road from terror and exhaustion.

Galician pigs often lie in thousands for a week together in the snow and slush outside the slaughter-houses, waitiug to be killed. Thus far my own experience and things I have seen. In England, if I am to believe newspaper paragraphs and statistics, things are as bad if not worse. For a short résumé of the horrors attending the transport of cattle by land and by sea, let anybody whom it interests turn to pages 65-69 of Dr. A. Kingsford's Perfect Way in Diet, headed The Sufferings of Cattle, and they will learn well-authenticated facts which will fill them with pain and disgust. The following figures are sufficiently significant. They are taken from the report of the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council for the year 1879.

In 1879, 157 cargoes of Canadian cattle were shipped for Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, in which total there were 25,185 oxen, 73,913 sheep, and 3,663 pigs; but of this number 154 oxen, 1,623 sheep, and 249 pigs were thrown into the sea during the passage, 21 oxen, 226 sheep, and 3 pigs were landed dead, and 1 oxen and 61 sheep were so wounded and suffering on arriving that they had to be slaughtered on the spot. In the same year there were shipped from the United States for the ports of Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Grimsby, Hartlepool, Hull, Leith, Liverpool, London, Newcastle-on-Tyne, South Shields, and Southampton 535 cargoes of animals, of which 76,117 were oxen, 119,350 sheep, 15,180 pigs; but of this number 3,140 oxen, 5,915 sheep, and 2,943 pigs were cast into the sea during the transit; 231 oxen, 386 sheep, and 392 pigs arrived dead at the place of landing; and 93 oxen, 167 sheep, and 130 pigs were so mutilated that they had to be sacrificed on the spot. In résumé, 14,024 animals were thrown into the sea, 1,240 were landed dead, and 455 were slaughtered on the quay to save them dying of their wounds and sufferings. One asks one's self what state the remaining animals were in, which were sold for human food?

It is not an unnatural or far-fetched idea to connect this state of things with the excessive and inexplicable extension of cancer within the last decade. The more and the further cattle are transported under these conditions, the more tainted (though perhaps not perceptibly so) meat must be eaten, the more poison is infused into the blood. It is not possible that the flesh of an animal which has been knocked about, frightened, starved, exposed to the heat of the sun or icy cold for days and weeks, should be as healthy as that of those taken from our own fields and slaughtered at once, as was the case in the days of our ancestors.

These considerations, however, were not the only ones that moved me. I do not think that anybody has the right to indulge in tastes which oblige others to follow a brutalizing occupation, which morally degrades the man who earns his bread by it. To call a man a butcher means that he is fond of bloodshed. Butchers often become murderers. I remember two cases in the papers last summer where butchers had been hired to murder individuals whom they did not even know. After this comes the irrepressible thought. Is it right to take life in order to feed one's self, when there is plenty of other available food which will do just as well?

Having answered these questions to my own satisfaction, I plunged at once into full-blown vegetarianism, I got very little to eat, and that not very good, for neither I nor my cook was à la hauteur of the situation. I had, however, one, and that a very great compensation—I felt superior to my fellow-beings, treading on air, my head delightfully clear, and altogether lifted up above material things. The poet laureate's lines to Fitzgerald will give in a few words the story of my first and unsuccessful attempt:

". . . live on milk and meat and grass;
And once for ten long weeks I tried
Your table of Pythagoras,
And seemed at first a thing enskied
(As Shakespeare has it), airy light,
To float above the ways of men.
Then fell from that half-spiritual height
Chilled, till I tasted flesh again."

I, too, felt chilled and sleepy by day and night, so tired that I could hardly walk. The doctor said: “You have no pulse at all, and must give in; it does not suit you.” The winter was icy cold and depressing, and for the moment I followed Tennyson's example. Mais je ne reculais que pour mieux sauter, and with the first breath of spring, when all those delightful fruits and leaves and roots which Raphael did not disdain to paint as ornaments in his loggias reappear on our tables, I made my second methodical and successful attempt, eliminating week by week one kind of animal food only, and replacing it by some equally nutritious vegetable preparation.

The very strict ascetic sect of vegetarians who only live upon seeds and uncooked food look down upon their weaker brethren who eat eggs and milk and butter, in fact, everything which does not necessitate the taking of life, which appears to me to be the only reasonable standpoint. I will not, therefore, enter into discussions whether our teeth are those of a carnivorous or frugivorous animal, though the latter appears to me the most likely theory, as fruits are the only edibles we can eat and digest without cooking; everything else requires the aid of fire to make it palatable and wholesome. It is certain that the giving up of animal food cures many illnesses which no medicines can reach. Everybody knows the bad effects of butcher's meat in gout and rheumatism. In affections of the heart it is often the only remedy, and the wonderful results are not difficult to explain in a case where rest often means cure, if one reflects that while the meat-eater's heart has seventy-two beats in the minute the vegetarian's only has fifty-eight beats, therefore twenty thousand beats less in the course of the twenty-four hours. Insomnia and nervousness are affected in the same way; there is less wear and more repose in the constitution. I could enumerate many other illnesses in which vegetable diet does marvels, but will only mention those of the skin. Most vegetarians have unusually clear and often beautiful complexions. I need only remind those who know them of the old Carthusian and Trappist monks, who all have smooth white and pink Fra Beato Angelico kind of faces, which are not found among the orders that do not habitually live on Lenten fare. The splendid teeth of the Italian peasantry, who never touch meat, speak for themselves, and it is the same in other countries where the people live under similar conditions. It is foolish to associate vegetable diet with temperance, as so many do: they are quite astonished to see a vegetable-eater drinking wine or beer. One thing, however, is true, viz., that it is far easier to cure a drunkard if you deprive him of meat, because, as Dr. Jackson, head doctor of the Asylum for Dipsomaniacs, Dansville, United States, says: “It is clear that meat contains some not nutritious particles, which excite the nervous system so much that it at last becomes exhausted and unstrung. In this state of exhaustion unhealthy reaction follows, which brings on a paroxysm and violent desire for spirits and the excitement which they create.” G. Bünge, Professor of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Bâle, writes, in his book on vegetarianism, page 33: “The appetite of the drunkard is directed almost exclusively to animal food, and vegetarians are quite right when they teach that spirit-drinking and excessive use of animal food are in connection with each other.”

Vegetarianism is often called a fad, but it is a healthy and an innocent one, and the natural reaction against the present state of things. It imparts lightness and elasticity to the body, brightness and clearness to the mind. The vegetarians I know are all unusually strong, active, and young-looking people for their age: one of them walked without stopping for thirty-four and another time twenty-seven hours, without a rest, while on an excursion in Norway, feats not easily equaled by the most inveterate beef-eater. Traveling, mountain-climbing, all seem easier and less fatiguing on this light and soothing diet; and why should it not give strength to the limbs and sinews if one reflects that all the strongest animals who do the heaviest work in the world, like horses, oxen, and elephants, are entirely herbivorous?

There is, of course, a great deal more to say on so wide a subject, but I have in these pages confined myself almost entirely to my own experiences. Being but a beginner myself, there is much for me to learn, and I have not even touched on the possibilities and probabilities this theme opens out into the domain of psychology. But only a few days ago one whose experience and knowledge on this subject are greater than those of most men told me he owed almost everything he had attained in his domain to his strict adherence to a vegetable diet. It certainly gives, to those who live on these lines, a kind of detachment from material things, a sense of calm and content. It is in the hope of helping some who may feel nervous and worried in mind, or ill in body, that I write these lines, to point out a simple remedy everybody can apply. It not only costs nothing, but even puts money in our pockets—only, like everything else, it must be governed by good sense and reason in order to be successful.

It is not my intention to be understood to say that I look upon vegetable diet, even with its necessary accompaniments of fresh air, frequent ablutions, gymnastics, and exercise, as a panacea for everything, and that medicines become useless. We are mortal, and there is no perfection in this imperfect world. Nobody has a greater belief than I have in remedies judiciously given during illness, but it is the many who are out of health and below par, without hardly knowing what is the matter with them, who would be all the better for trying whether their discomforts spring from too high and rich a diet or from the inability to procure any but inferior meat, or fish. In the first case they would soon feel their tired digestions rested and their irritated nerves calming down, while in the latter they would find out that it is easy to get a healthier and an equally satisfying meal for half the cost of what they were in the habit of spending before.

Though these motives are not perhaps the highest which ought to lead us to a result, they are those which exercise a most general influence. The small number who change their mode of life from principle only know how far above bodily health the blessings are which grow out of the sacrifice. Before the eyes of everybody the lines of the Latin poet must conjure up a delightful and attractive picture:

"Forbear, O mortals, to taint your bodies with forbidden food;
Corn have we; the boughs bend under a load of fruit;
Our vines abound in swelling grapes; our fields with wholesome herbs,
Whereof those of a cruder kind may be softened and mellowed by fire.
Nor is milk denied us, nor honey smelling of the fragrant thyme;
Earth is lavish of her riches, and teems with kindly stores.
Providing without slaughter or bloodshed for all manner of delights."