Veganism in Seven Decades

Illustrations by Emma Kelly

Perhaps inspired by Jay Z and Beyoncé’s 22-day vegan diet or the recent outing of Al Gore as a “newly turned vegan,” news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic are already declaring 2014 “the year of the vegan.” Such popularity was unfathomable 70 years ago, when Vegan Society founder Donald Watson first created a separate term for milk-and-egg-free vegetarians. Here, a quick primer on veganism’s outliers-to-Oprah path.

Rejecting reader suggestions like “dairyban” and “sanivore,” Watson picks “vegan” as the name for a nondairy, eggless, vegetarian diet. Also dismissed: “vegetarian” and “fruitarian,” because they’re two words “already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ of cows and fowls.”

Seventeen-year-old Australian swimmer Murray Rose wins three Olympic gold medals on a vegan diet of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, unpolished rice, dates, cashew nuts, and carrot juice prepared by his mother, earning him the nickname “The Seaweed Streak.”

Bearded bohemian guru Father Yod opens the Source restaurant, a vegan hot spot on L.A.’s Sunset Strip that attracts celebrity eaters from Marlon Brando to John Lennon.

“Straight Edge,” a 46-second track by punk band Minor Threat, takes aim at drugs and boozing, spawning the so-called straightedge subculture. Many adherents become vegans, too, with extremists finding homes with groups like the Animal Liberation Front.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine proposes a “radical” overhaul of the USDA’s four food groups: a meatless quad of fruits, legumes, whole grains, and vegetables. Farmers laugh at it as “the height of irresponsibility.” A year later, the USDA introduces the food-guide pyramid with meat and dairy occupying little sections at the top.

Weird Al Yankovic joins the fast-growing list of vegan celebs after he reads Diet for a New America. (The same year, Paul McCartney, a vegetarian, refuses to let Yankovic parody “Live and Let Die” as “Chicken Pot Pie.”) Asked in a fanzine how he justifies playing at the annual Great American Rib Cook-Off, he says, “The same way I can rationalize playing at a college even though I’m not a student anymore.”

Marrying Dada and animal-rights activism, artist Jonathan Horowitz closes his “Go Vegan!” exhibition in Chelsea with Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery, a bit of bean curd floating in water. Times art critic Ken Johnson calls it “a quiet, quasi-religious plea for dietary change.”

Celebrity veganism’s tastemakers Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi have a vegan wedding catered by chef Tal Ronnen, who the same year prepares Oprah’s 21-day vegan cleanse, meant to remind the media mogul “how the food we consume every day got to be on our plates.”

Alicia Silverstone’s vegan cookbook The Kind Diet tops the Times best-seller list. “I just didn’t know my potential at the time,” the Clueless star says of her pre-vegan film days.

Concluding that being a notorious gourmand is “play[ing] Russian roulette,” Bill Clinton tells CNN’s Sanjay Gupta he’s (mostly) given up meat, eggs, and dairy. When Gupta asks if that makes him vegan, the erstwhile omnivore rubs his chin and says, “Well, I suppose I am.”

Usher tries to convert protégé Justin Bieber to “keep him energized.” Bieber, however, is “not feeling” veganism; a member of his posse tells Star he tried tofu steak and tempeh tacos, then “made a big show of spitting out the food and making gagging noises.”

Domino’s Pizza Israel launches their first-ever vegan pies: soy cheese topped with vegetables.

Veganism in Seven Decades