If you think it’s tricky finding a cafe serving oat milk in modern Britain, Mahatma Gandhi offered some perspective in the first volume of his Collected Works. His essays and letters contain some of the most endearing descriptions ever written about the trials of a person attempting to feed himself without meat or eggs in a culture fixated with meat.
When he arrived in England as a law student in 1888, the young Gandhi took lodgings in Brighton, having heard there was a vegetarian restaurant there, only to find that it did not exist. He ended up cooking porridge, stewed fruit and bean soup in his rented rooms. But when Gandhi got to London, he discovered a thriving vegetarian scene.
Vegetarianism had a surprising flowering in late 19th-century Britain, as Colin Spencer describes in his comprehensive Vegetarianism: A History. As he recounts, there were multiple groups of campaigners in the 1880s who saw a non-animal diet as part of wider social radicalism. Many Victorian vegetarians were also pacifists or Fabians. Some of them were what Gandhi called “vegetarian extremists”, abstaining from milk and butter and well as meat.
Clearly, there have been de facto vegans for a long time, but the word itself was only invented in 1944. That year, the Vegan Society broke away from the Vegetarian Society on the grounds that, as Spencer explains: “The dairy herd is inextricably mixed up with the meat industry; three-quarters of beef production stems from it, and milk production entails the removal of the calves from their mothers when they are a few days old.”
On the ethics of veganism, the ur-text remains Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Published in 1975, this fierce and brilliant work of philosophy makes uncomfortable reading for “flexitarians” like me who declare we love vegan food before eating another dish of braised lamb. In clear, logical prose, Singer argues that the suffering of animals in factory farming is real; that humans can flourish without milk or eggs; and that a non-vegan diet is therefore part of “the tyranny of human over non-human animals”.
Long before the current vogue for gourmet vegan burgers and cauliflower steaks, Singer’s text inspired a generation of British vegans to forgo roast dinners in favour of nut roasts and carob-flavoured desserts.
The lentil-weaving ethos of the 1970s vegan is celebrated in Joanne O’Connell’s The Homemade Vegan. This is a charming slice of social history, which recalls the experiences and recipes of those who cooked with such ingredients as tofu and cashew cream long before they were fashionable. She has gathered together period oddities such as walnut rissoles and a sort of bechamel made with wholemeal flour and margarine.
If it’s truly tempting vegan food you are after, however, I would turn to Madhur Jaffrey’s 1981 classic Eastern Vegetarian Cooking, which makes eating without animal foods seem no hardship. Jaffrey shows that vegan meals have long been a normal part of life in China, India and Japan. The book does contains a chapter on eggs – but most of the recipes are simple preparations of vegetables, grains, nuts, oils and spices, with lots of aubergine recipes, including one in white miso sauce, a dish that still seems modern 38 years on. If I ever went vegan for real, this book would be my guide.