Rise of the Planet of Vegans
You see it everywhere. Your vegetarian aunt is quitting dairy to manage her irritable bowel syndrome. Nut-butters are selling out quicker than regular butter. That Wholefoods employee keeps forcing you to try their coconut cacao gluten-free vegan ice-cream. Eating as advertised on the 1950’s food-pyramid has never been more unpopular and announcing that you’re an omnivore in 2019 is basically offensive. You start to wonder, “Does this vegan stuff have legitimate benefits or is everyone riding a giant placebo wave?”
Veganism has gained a lot of traction in the past 15 years. The lifestyle that rejects the use of animal products for all purposes has amassed a following of over 600,000 individuals in the UK alone. 2019 surveys report that a quarter of 25 to 34-year-old Americans admit to living vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. A-list celebrities from Joaquin Phoenix to Ariana Grande swear by benefits of living cruelty-free. But where did veganism come from and why is it so popular?
A Brief History of Veganism
In 1944, peace among nations seemed like a pipe dream. World War 2 involving 50 countries waged in every continent except Antarctica. Even so, amidst this bloodthirsty backdrop, a movement was born that reoriented humanity to a much larger and more compassionate goal.
In the same year, English couple Donald and Dorothy Watson coined the term “vegan.” They wanted something to describe individuals who were vegetarian… till its logical conclusion. So, the beginning “veg-” and the ending “-an” from “vegetarian” became “vegan”.
In an interview, Watson described a story of how Dorothy and he once found a dying blackbird in their backyard.
“Well, I suppose many humanitarians would have thought the best thing we can do in a case like this was to put it out of its misery, but my wife and I had never killed anything, so we lifted it up, carried it into the greenhouse, gave it a saucer of water, closed the door, and left it there for the night, knowing that no predator could reach it. We fully expected the next morning to find it dead of course. To our surprise, there it was, sitting up… we opened the door, and it flew out.”
They thought that was the last they would see of the bird. They were wrong.
Now free in the sky, this blackbird flew parallel with the clothesline whenever Dorothy would hang clothes to dry. As the bird crossed her, it also dipped in flight — as if to say, “thank you.” This “loop of gratitude” happened whenever Dorothy would be out drying clothes.
Hence, for these two, ethical eating didn’t stop at quitting meat. They firmly believed that “Man should have a closer, and a kinder, affiliation with the rest of Creation…”
Veganism had officially arrived, but it was veganism lite. It did not flat-out reject woolen socks, silk scarves, ivory piano keys or gelatin marshmallows. Well, at least not yet.
After forming the Vegan Society in 1944 with two close friends, its first few newsletters were sent out to a modest 25 subscribers. For the next 70 years, Donald and Dorothy would work tirelessly on sharing relevant news, recipes, and vegan product-swaps while growing their club and their audience.
The Vegan Society soon announced that they didn’t just advocate for a vegan diet but a cruelty-free lifestyle in conjunction. In the 1947 edition, they wrote,
“The vegan renounces it as superstitious that human life depends upon the exploitation of these creatures whose feelings are much the same as our own …”
Veganism had begun to represent what it means today.
As the newsletter expanded its reach, in 1956, Leslie Cross, vice-president of the Vegan Society, single-handedly pioneered the distribution of soy-milk across the UK by starting the company Plantmilk Ltd. Her efforts made it easier for people to begin swapping dairy milk with a non-dairy alternative.
Simultaneously, California-based Catherine Nimmo and Rubin Abramowit, distributed the Watsons’ newsletter across the US and started their own American Vegan Society.
By the 1960s, vegetarianism had become a counterculture movement in the US. This was, in part, due to the influence of books like Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet For A Small Planet that sold over 3 million copies.
To top this off, the years between 1970–1990 saw medical professionals like John McDouggal, T. Colin Campbell, Neil D. Barnard amass a cult-like following. They all advocated for a meat-free and dairy-free diet based on their research on chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer.
While hundreds of millions of people may not have been turning vegan, they were hearing about it every-time they flipped through newspapers or thumbed through news channels.
Fast-forward to today: The economist has predicted 2019 will be “the year of the vegan”.
Brands are cashing in on the ethical health-craze. This is most recently exemplified by the ‘20g of protein’ Beyond (meat) Burger that “looks, cooks and satisfies like beef”. Vegan bodybuilders like Kenneth Williams and Denise Nicole are challenging the stereotype that this lifestyle is restricted to “skinny bitches.” Even the idea that animals should be caged, plucked and chemically tested on is shunned by consumers today — forcing most make-up and skincare brands to choose between changing their testing protocol or being boycotted.
If all this isn’t amazing enough, organizations like The Good Food Institute are rewriting the vegan moral code by manufacturing ‘cruelty-free’ meat directly from the stem cells of animals.
All this begs the questions: How can a movement gain so much momentum in just a few short decades? What about veganism makes it stick?
One summer evening in 2015, a viral video by animal-rights activist Gary Yourofsky surfaced as a recommendation on my YouTube homepage. It was called “The Most Important Speech You Will Ever Hear.” I clicked on the video just to prove to myself and the damn YouTube algorithm that I wasn’t gonna have a life-changing experience on an ordinary Tuesday.
Instead, I cried myself to sleep that night. In the video, Gary is talking to a bunch of high-school students to show them the reality behind factory farming… with footage. I had never seen this much pain and suffering concentrated into ten minutes of illegal footage. I felt like a hypocrite. For someone who claimed to love animals so much, I realized I was exceptionally ignorant.
The next morning I was a newly turned vegan and I’ve never looked back. Four years later, I am at a healthy weight while steadily gaining muscle mass. My skin has been clear for the most part and I no longer struggle with horrible digestive issues.
Veganism directed my adolescent desire for independence and control in a meaningful and healthy direction.
At the beginning of my transition, I had to get used to reading food labels before I consumed anything. Animal-ingredients are sneaky. It’s understandable that a pack of sour cream and onion Lays has “milk solids” in its ingredient list, but fish-bladder in beer? Give me a break.
I made many more discoveries- how gelatin or pig fat is commonly coated on omega supplements, how certain lipsticks use animal tissue or tallow as a thickening agent and how white sugar is mainly processed using ground-up animal bones whose traces remain in the bags on the shelves!
There were some good bits as well. The combination of my openness with my mother’s culinary enthusiasm led to bi-weekly experimental dinners with vegan recipes taken off of Pinterest. We never had a chance to do this before. I just ate whatever was made for dinner without any curiosity, excitement or questions. We explored this new lifestyle together. There were hits and misses.
A lot of things were great. My mom’s hummus was so delicious that it became a staple served with both lunch and dinner no matter what. I remember trying baked sweet potatoes and falling in love with the hearty starchy feeling of carbs.
I became obsessed with extra firm tofu cooked in black bean sauce so I ate it every single day for three months. Other gems included baked apples stuffed with mashed-up dates and oatmeal, vegan carrot cake with walnuts, and (the legendary) kale cooked in a tangy peanut butter sauce. That’s right, peanut butter sauce!
Sometimes our expectations were too high. We once tried making vegan gluten-free pizza with a cauliflower crust which set our oven on fire. When zucchini noodles (“zoodles”) were trending, we attempted making those with walnut pesto. I was hungry exactly ten minutes after eating it. The first time I tried avocado I almost gagged. When things didn’t work out, I might’ve complained but I never questioned whether this lifestyle was for me.
Over time, I realized a lot of plant-based ingredients can be ‘hacked’ into tasting like dairy products. For example, nutritional yeast flakes sprinkled on warm scrambled tofu melts just enough to imitate a cheesy finish. Another example: a spoonful of apple cider vinegar gives vegan sour-cream the fermented yogurt flavor.
Today, I can safely say that it is often cheaper and a whole lot faster to replace animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives. Thanks to my mom encouraging me to try all sorts of recipes, I can call myself an expert at this lifestyle.
Before veganism, I used to view food as something to get over with. Today, I savor my food and look forward to every meal. I also eat more kale.
The best part, however, is the friendship I’ve sustained with like-minded people. In college, after hearing about my transition, my roommate decided to go vegan. After breaks, we brought each other dorm room snacks we could hog on when our university mess decided it didn’t like vegans.
Another college buddy joins us every month or so as we try out plant-based restaurants. This tradition continues even after University has ended. Brought together by a common purpose, the time we spend enjoying cruelty-free cheesecake also helps us be present in each others’ lives.
World War II sentiments might have fizzled out over the decades, but the Watsons’ ideology of benevolence continued to alter the lives of millions across the globe. From a small club run by a hardworking couple in 1944 to annual festivals across the world with thousands of attendees, the vegan community has grown rapidly in just a few short years.
Donald and Dorothy would have been elated to hear that 2019 will be the year of veganism. The movement that began with saving an injured blackbird in a backyard has saved the lives of millions of animals today. For vegans everywhere, that’s a victory worth celebrating.