An “alternative” lifestyle, but increasingly more widespread. Seen by some as a simple trend of the contemporary society, vegetarianism vaunts instead a history longer than many would imagine. Ancient philosophy, ethics and even religion mingle and intertwine in that school of thought adopted today by the supporters of the vegetarian practice.
The ancient origins of the custom, and enforcement, of the refusal of meat find an evident expression in the Orphic and Pythagorean doctrines of ancient Greece. In these, respect for animals was due because both schools were bound to the concept of metempsychosis or metensomatosis, according to which the soul survives bodily death – the body being a mere involucre – migrating to another and thus reincarnating. The new container of a migrating soul could then be that of any animal.
The ideas dictated by the Oriental religions follow, or concur in time, with both Buddhism and Hinduism. Respect and compassion for animals result, in these doctrines, closely bound to a higher and purer spirituality. The social implications of the religious influence are plain for everyone to see: be it sufficient to say that, currently, about 40% of the Indian population is vegetarian.
The twine, woven in history, of ideas conceived by different sources – sometimes antithetical, like philosophy and religion – have conducted to the ensemble of habits and customs of the contemporary vegetarian individual. The founding pillars of this inheritance in the modern society are represented by the foundation of the Vegetarian Society: it’s 1847, United Kingdom. It’s this very association that creates and spreads the term vegetarian.
About a century later, in 1975, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer publishes Animal Liberation, considered by many to be the vegetarian manifesto. It’s the first time that a literary work explicitly addresses subjects like animal testing and intensive animal farming, which had – up until then – hardly ever been taken into consideration. The work defines, almost encyclopaedically, how to be vegetarian. Not only refusal of animal exploitation strictly related to the food industry, but also in all other contexts where it takes place; the refusal, for example, to use animal fur and animal-tested cosmetics.
Over time, different subcategories of vegetarianism emerge:
- ovo-lacto vegetarians, whose diets include both eggs and dairy products;
- lacto-vegetarians, whose diets include dairy products in association with vegetable products, but not eggs;
- vegans, whose diets exclude all animal products, including eggs and dairy. Usually, vegans also avoid all animal products such as honey, leather, woolen or silk clothing.
But it is not only ethics that brings individuals to adopt vegetarianism. Besides religion, especially over the last few years, health reasons seem to be among the most common. To sustain and justify the trend are valuable studies and projects, brought forth by great minds of the medical panorama. Works such as the Italian studies by Umberto Veronesi (world-famous oncologist – and admittedly vegetarian) and the Diana project have underlined the many benefits of a healthy diet; that is, one with few (if no) products of animal origin.
It’s easy to see why, lately, the vegetarian food market has seen a vertiginous rise, so much so that it generally even has its own dedicated shelf in every supermarket. Even restaurants, having noticed the potential of this very green – and also very profitable – market, increasingly offer vegetarian dishes in alternative to meat-based recipes.
In the field of vegetarian cuisine Pietro Leemann with his restaurant, Joia, is one to stand out. Among other things, the chef recently participated as a guest in the final episode of the Italian edition of the cooking tv-show par excellence, MasterChef. First Michelin star for a vegetarian restaurant in Europe, the Swiss pupil of Gualtiero Marchesi invented a new way of conceiving cooking, where the quality of the dishes goes hand in hand with an aesthetic that wants to formally recall and transmit love for nature. Also worthy of note in this sense is Simone Salvini (whose fame undoubtedly grew thanks to the exhilarating imitations of Italian comedian Maurizio Crozza in the character of the “vegan chef”); Salvini organises haute vegetarian cuisine cooking classes with his Ghita Academy.
On this streak of healthy and vegetarian cuisine, where the intention is not to enforce the vegetarian mentality but its discovery as an experience of physical and mental pleasure, is, curiously, one of the greatest names of world cuisine: Alain Ducasse. Since 2014, the internationally-renowned chef removed meat from his restaurants, a bold choice for a healthier, more ethical and, above all, more sustainable cuisine.
Green sensibility is another of the ever-growing tendencies of recent years. Combining the concepts of air pollution with intensive farming – and therefore massive consumption of meat – is easy; the information about the phenomenon is getting richer and ever more detailed. Jonathan Safran Foer, one of the most popular contemporary authors – and most controversial – suggests in his work Eating Animals a crude, brutally objective analysis of these realities, also exploring their oppressive environmental impact.
To complete this picture of consciousness are the latest social trends such as #meatfreemonday, an invitation to consume only vegetables on Mondays with the presentation of often attractive, healthy and colorful dishes. On Instagram one of the biggest users of the hashtag is definitely Jamie Oliver, English chef with a strong passion for Italian cuisine. On his site, a section is dedicated exclusively to vegan and vegetarian recipes; likewise, we find an increasing number of food blogs focusing on this type of cuisine. From Vegolosi, an all-Italian online magazine offering recipes and news related to the theme, to the wonderful and strictly veg Hortus Cuisine, photography & food blog by the talented Valentina Solfrini, the trend is evident. Another example – internationally renowned thanks to the beauty of the images and the peculiarity of the proposed preparations – is The Green Kitchen, bestselling book by the Swedish food bloggers, David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl.