The paths of the modern Vegetarian Movement and Baby Boomers have crisscrossed for decades. Mister Boomer is not a vegetarian, but his spouse is vegan. However, Mister B has been seen associating with known vegetarians since the 1970s, so he has observed the trials and tribulations experienced by people who chose this dietary path out of religious conviction, ethnic origin, health concerns or lifestyle choices. The fact of the matter is, it was difficult to be a vegetarian in the early boomer days, especially when eating a meal in a restaurant or traveling to other parts of the country where usual sources were not available. That got Mister Boomer to wonder, what is the relationship between vegetarianism and boomers?
Long associated with a desire to live in peace with all living things, vegetarianism was chiefly practiced by Eastern religious cultures for centuries, most notably Buddhists, Hindus, some Taoists and Sikhs. The modern-age Western Vegetarian Movement began in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in the late 1800s.
Flash forward and in the 1940s vegans became a branch of the United Kingdom’s Vegetarian Society. In addition to not eating meat, vegans refrain from dairy and egg products. During the War there were no provisions for Allied soldiers who might profess to be any type of vegetarians (though the numbers were not great), consequently by the time they returned home they were accustomed to a steady diet of meat products, as were the vast majority of the parents of Baby Boomers.
A practitioner of the European love and peace lifestyle, which incorporated vegetarianism, eden ahbez (purposely lower case), moved to California in 1947. He was, among other things, a songwriter who wrote the song, Nature Boy. It was a mostly autobiographical song that extolled the virtues of his love and peace lifestyle. Nat King Cole had a number one hit with the song, and it lasted three weeks on the Billboard charts in 1948. The song is credited with helping Nat King Cole to become more popular among white audiences, though most likely very few connected the song to the proto-hippie and vegetarian lifestyle. The song was subsequently recorded by dozens of popular singers, including Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Alex Chilton and Marvin Gaye. In a 1951 lawsuit, a Yiddish playwright named Herman Yablokoff claimed the song’s melody was stolen from a play he had written in 1935, though ahbez claimed he heard the melody in the California mountains as if sung to him by angels. Ultimately the songwriter’s attorneys settled the suit for the sum of $25,000. It was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 as a song of historical significance. No mention of vegetarianism there, despite the songwriter’s proclivity.
The Beat Generation of the 1950s has been peripherally associated with vegetarianism since its writers and poets created several Buddhist references and characters who practiced the dietary regimen as a matter of respect and desire to do no harm to any living thing. Alan Ginsberg is quoted as saying he ate a vegetarian diet in his early years, but in later years he was an omnivore. Jack Keourac was also an omnivore. Vegetarians were the few and silent minority.
Like Carnaby Street clothing and the music of the British Invasion, vegetarianism came to the US from the United Kingdom in the 1960s and did much to spread its popularity. At that time there was no food labeling, and very little knowledge of what eating vegetarian could mean, let alone living vegetarian. When the word cropped up in social circles, a vegetarian diet was thought of as unhealthy, and vegetarians more than a bit loony. Boomer kids who told their parents they wouldn’t eat meat had few options other than whatever fresh, frozen or canned vegetables the family had on hand. In those early boomer days the only vegetarian-friendly options on most restaurant menus was salad. There were few ethnic restaurants, aside from Italian and Chinese. Italian-American restaurant meals concentrated on meat, with pasta on the side. Though technically pasta is vegetarian, most “red sauce joints” made one sauce for their entrees, and it was meat-based. The same was true for Chinese restaurants in that chop suey or chow mein entrees could be made with broths that contained fish or meat.
The Hippie Movement of the late ’60s became identified with sexual liberation, personal enlightenment and a back-to-nature emphasis that manifested itself in long hair and beards for men, a natural appearance for women, and to the preferred mode of dress for both: plant-fiber clothing. Direct offshoots of this philosophy were vegetarianism, organic farming and alternative medicine. Thus the connection of the earlier-century European vegetarians to peaceful co-existence was revived and heightened. This did nothing to dispel the groundswell of derision against hippies at the time since their very lifestyle was outside the norm, and therefore an affront to the Establishment. If hippies accepted vegetarianism, all the more reason to deride all vegetarians.
Following the Hippie Movement, communes cropped up around the country, growing their own vegetables on a self-sustaining level. The Farm, founded in Tennessee in 1971, was the most influential of these communes since it popularized tofu and soy milk to the boomer vegetarian population and beyond. Also in 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was published. The book encouraged people to eat meatless meals and stop wasting food, pointing out the tremendous resources needed to produce meat. Toward that end, it featured vegetarian recipes and put forth the theory of protein combining, which was intended to counter the argument that a vegetarian diet was lacking in protein. This theory matched the nutrient needs of the human body with plant-based foods that can be combined to supply the body’s requirements. We now know it is even easier to get adequate supplies of protein through plant-based foods than put forth in 1971.
In the 1980s studies suggested that people who followed a vegetarian diet had lower rates of heart disease than those who did not. Today weight-loss companies and many cardiac physicians — as some boomers have discovered — recommend a vegetarian diet as a healthier alternative. Many restaurants feature “heart-healthy” options on their menus, vegetarian dishes among them.
Mister Boomer recalls traveling to various parts of the country with his vegan wife 25 and 30 years ago. In those pre-Internet days, driving into an area and looking for vegetarian options was a difficult task. Very often, Mrs. Boomer would have to settle for a restaurant’s canned vegetables, onion rings or Iceberg lettuce salads. It got much easier as ethnic restaurants started appearing with regularity in more areas in the 1990s.
Today approximately 16 million people in the US consider themselves vegan or vegetarian, and there are many others who just want to eat more plant-based meals. It is rare to not see at least one entree selection on every restaurant menu that is not designed for vegetarians. The proliferation of ethnic food — especially Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern — brings choices for boomers, whether they are vegetarians or not.
Boomers helped to change people’s opinion on vegetarianism. Mister Boomer recommends eating more veggies, for whatever reason you choose. Did you ever try eating a vegetarian diet, boomers?