Vintage Veg

‘Radical Vegetarianism’ Is Everything Veganism Shouldn’t Be

The 1981 book argues for a fanatical, essentialist, white veganism that the movement has thankfully started to move past

Photo: Alicia Kennedy

“Do you perceive the veal floating invisibly inside every glass of milk?” asks Mark Mathew Braunstein in the preface to the revised 1993 edition of his 1981 book Radical Vegetarianism:

A dairy cow is not killed immediately, but condemning her to cruel conditions might be worse than saving her skin. Meanwhile her calf, briefly confined, is killed. The dairy barn adjoins the veal crate. Dairy Queen is merged in discorporate partnership with Burger King. Every cup of milk is appetizer to a meal of veal. If your lips are white with milk, your hands are red with blood.

Braunstein goes on like that not just in the preface but throughout this slim volume that argues for the absolute necessity of veganism. Radical vegetarianism, in his view, is not just fruits and vegetables, “but life and death.” He advocates, without much compassion for anyone who might require or enjoy differently, a raw food diet.

In reading this book, we see how a lot of stereotypes about vegans came to emerge: dogmatic, unforgiving, and obsessed with the philosophy of the ‘East.’

In short, he is precisely the kind of uncompromising voice that first led me to veganism in 2011 through my Long Island yoga studio, where they suggested that only a diet of uncooked plant foods would result in our achieving the most difficult of positions. This led me through my only period during which I suffered something that could be characterized as disordered eating. My toes did touch my forehead while I was in handstand, but I pulled a muscle in my back so badly that I couldn’t practice for a week. A friend had noticed how much weight I’d shed and said he wondered if I were eating enough for all the exercise I was doing. He made sense, but wasn’t I on a path to enlightenment? Or was I just measuring out my food and feeling guilty any time I ate something cooked? As Braunstein says, “Eat it raw, or not at all. Nutrition tells us what is good, but cookery produces what merely tastes good.”

This zealotry strikes me as funny now, but it can be destructive — and still, it’s a significant piece of vegan history. In reading this book, we see how a lot of stereotypes about vegans came to emerge: dogmatic, unforgiving, and obsessed with the philosophy of the “East” in a way that is aesthetic without acknowledging power dynamics in the Western world. I’m not shocked but am dismayed to see that in 1982, Vegetarian Times dedicated two pages to covering it despite asserting that the Holocaust was brought upon the Jewish people by their consumption of meat. “We find this part of the book irresponsible and ludicrous,” they write, “but we hope this doesn’t totally discredit the book in some people’s eyes.” Oh?

There’s more subtle U.S.-centric thought when he notes there are no moral issues in “picking tea leaves, harvesting hops, curing tobacco, or cutting cane, compared with slashing the throat of a lamb.” We know that there are many moral issues around farm labor and the ways in which the global South has been ravaged by imperialist, colonialist viewpoints for its resources, such as tobacco and sugarcane. That was missed by the Vegetarian Times in 1982.

It’s true that, as the magazine noted, there is a lot of wordplay and humor in Braunstein’s writing, but the reception such a text received upon its initial release also shows us so much of the work that has been done in the years since to shift perception of vegetarianism and veganism as fanatical and exclusive, white and essentialist. We’ve come a long way, and Radical Vegetarianism is useful in all it shows us about that.

I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues:

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