World Vegetarian Day is observed annually on October 1. It is a day of celebration established by the North American Vegetarian Society in 1977 and endorsed by the International Vegetarian Union in 1978, “To promote the joy, compassion and life-enhancing possibilities of vegetarianism.” World Vegetarian Day initiates the month of October as Vegetarian Awareness Month, which ends with November 1, World Vegan Day.
The documented history of vegetarianism goes back to ancient India and Greece. In both instances the diet was closely connected with the idea of nonviolence toward animals, and was promoted by religious groups and philosophers. Following the Christianizing of the Roman Empire in late antiquity, vegetarianism nearly disappeared from Europe. Several orders of monks in medieval Europe restricted or banned the consumption of meat for ascetic reasons, but none of them abstained from the consumption of fish. Vegetarianism was to re-emerge in Europe during the Renaissance, and became a more widespread practice during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The earliest reliable evidence for vegetarian theory and practice in Greece dates from the 6th century BCE. The Orphics, a religious movement spreading in Greece at that time, and Pythagoras, known primarily for the theorem that bears his name, but also a philosopher and religious leader in the area of Southern Italy colonized by Greek settlers, abstained from the flesh of animals. Not all the followers of Pythagoras practiced strict vegetarianism, but their inner circle did. For the general public of the time, abstention from meat was a hallmark of the so-called “Pythagorean way of life.” Both Orphics and strict Pythagoreans also avoided eggs. In the 5th century BCE the philosopher Empedocles distinguished himself as a radical advocate of vegetarianism out of respect for animals in general.
The ancient vegetarians held that consumption of meat hampered their ascetic and philosophical endeavors. Most of them also gave ethical reasons for their attitudes, rejected the common religious practice of animal sacrifice, and emphasized the common traits of humans and other species. Their opponents pointed to the differences between humans and animals in response. The question of whether there are any ethical duties toward animals was hotly debated, and the arguments in dispute were quite similar to the ones familiar in modern discussions on animal rights.
There was a widely held belief, popular among both vegetarians and non-vegetarians in antiquity, that in the Golden Age of the beginning of humanity, mankind was strictly non-violent. In that utopian state of the world, hunting, livestock breeding, and meat-eating, as well as agriculture, were unknown and unnecessary, because the earth spontaneously produced in abundance all the food its inhabitants needed. This notion can be found in Genesis, Hesiod, Ovid, Plato, and elsewhere.
Among the Platonists vegetarian thought was comparatively strong, while in other ancient schools of philosophy (Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans) it was virtually nonexistent. Almost all the Stoics were emphatically anti-vegetarian (with the exception of Seneca). They insisted on the absence of reason in animals, leading them to conclude that there cannot be any ethical obligations or restraints in dealing with the world of irrational animals. The followers of the Cynic School practiced an extremely frugal way of life which entailed a virtually meatless diet, but they were not formally or professed vegetarians.
In Plato’s Academy the scholarchs (school heads) Xenocrates and (probably) Polemon argued for vegetarianism. In the Peripatetic school Theophrastus, Aristotle’s immediate successor, supported it. Some of the prominent Platonists and Neo-Platonists in the age of the Roman Empire lived on a vegetarian diet. These included Plutarch (who seems to have adopted vegetarianism only temporarily), Apollonius of Tyana, Plotinus, and Porphyry. Porphyry wrote a treatise, “On Abstinence ,” the most elaborate ancient pro-vegetarian text extant, still cited by vegetarians today.
Jainist and Buddhist sources show that the principle of nonviolence toward animals was an established rule in both religions as early as the 6th century BCE. The Jainist concept, which is particularly strict, may be even much older. Purva, the earliest Jain leader that modern Western historians consider to be a historical figure, lived in the 8th or 7th century BCE. He is said to have preached nonviolence no less radically than it was practiced in the Jain community in the times of Mahavira (6th century BCE).
Not everyone who refused to participate in any killing or injuring of animals also abstained from the consumption of meat. Hence the question of the nature of Buddhist vegetarianism in the earliest stages of that religion’s development is controversial. There are two schools of thought. One says that the Buddha and his followers ate meat offered to them by hosts or alms-givers if they had no reason to suspect that the animal had been slaughtered specifically for their sake. The other says that the Buddha and his community of monks were strict vegetarians and the habit of accepting alms of meat was only tolerated later on, after a decline of discipline.
The first opinion is supported by several passages in the Pali version of the Tripitaka, the opposite one by some Mahayana texts. All those sources were put into writing several centuries after the death of the Buddha. They may reflect the conflicting positions of different wings or currents within the Buddhist community in its early stages. According to the Vinaya Pitaka, the first schism happened when the Buddha was still alive: a group of monks led by Devadatta left the community because they wanted stricter rules, including an unconditional ban on meat eating.
Currently it is fairly easy to follow a vegetarian diet in many countries, but this was not always the case. Prior to the 1960’s vegetarianism was unusual and no special accommodations would be made. No one, for example, would stop to think before planning a dinner party whether one of the guests might be vegetarian. Restaurants would not normally offer vegetarian main dishes, and vegetarian restaurants were practically unheard of. So I’d like to pay tribute to vegetarians prior to around 1950 who had to fight an uphill battle every day to preserve their choice. Here’s a gallery of a few of them (you get to name them). It is certainly not exhaustive, and I have not double-checked to make sure the list is completely accurate. Let me know if I have made any mistakes in terms of people I have included (not those who are missing).
Trying to be a vegetarian in Argentina is definitely going against the cultural tide. There are a few (a very few) vegetarian restaurants in Buenos Aires, mostly take outs. They could not survive financially if their only clientele were vegetarians. The vast bulk of their customers are meat eaters looking for an alternative for a change of pace. But there are vegetarian dishes in the Argentine spectrum even if they are side dishes for a meal where meat is the star. Humita, made with fresh corn, is very popular and can be used in a number of ways. It can be eaten plain as a side dish, used as a stuffing for vegetables or a filling for empanadas, or made it a baked casserole. Here is a baked version adapted from my favorite Argentine cookbook, Así Cocinan Los Argentinos by Alberto Prego. It is available in a bilingual (Spanish/English) version. Note that this is not a vegan dish; it assumes you eat eggs and dairy. The grating cheese used here is Argentine sardo, but Parmesan or the like is a good substitute.
Humita al horno
12-15 ears corn
½ cup butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 scallion finely chopped
200g soft melting cheese such as Port Salut, diced
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp cornstarch
4 eggs, lightly beaten
100g grated sardo
2-4 tbsp white breadcrumbs
1 tsp anise seed
1 tsp grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 325°C/160°C.
Strip the kernels from the cob to make 4 cups. Process in a blender or food processor until they are a thick paste.
Heat butter over medium heat in a large skillet, and sauté the onions and scallion until they are soft but not browned. Add the corn and diced Port Salut and stir gently for a few minutes until the cheese starts to melt. Remove from the heat.
Stir the cornstarch into the milk to form a slurry, then add the eggs, spices, and half the sardo. Add to the corn and mix.
Butter a shallow baking dish. Spread the corn mixture evenly. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and the remaining sardo, and dot with butter. Bake for about an hour or until the top is golden.
Serve hot, or let cool and cut into squares.
Argentinos often add toppings over the corn mix before covering with breadcrumbs and cheese. These can include sliced bell peppers, sliced boiled eggs, or sliced black olives.