By Julia Maish

“Animals are my friends…and I don’t eat my friends.”
— George Bernard Shaw

“I did not become a vegetarian for my health; I did it for the health of the chickens.”
— Isaac Bashevis Singer

“Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.”
— Jim Davis, creator of Garfield

October 1 is World Vegetarian Day, an annual recognition of a movement followed by those who, as Webster’s Dictionary defines it, “subsist solely upon vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts.”

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many practicing vegetarians are out there (estimates are anywhere from 375 to 700 million globally), possibly because they fall into a variety of different categories, including (but not limited to): Ethical Vegans (no animal-derived products, not only in what they eat, but in anything they use, wear, etc.); Vegan/Ethical Vegetarians (consuming no animal-derived products of any kind); Ovo-Vegetarians (a standard vegetarian diet, but eggs and egg products are okay); Lacto-Vegetarians (standard vegetarian but with added animal milks and milk products; Pescatarians (standard vegetarian except fish and seafood are permitted); Raw Foodist (a vegan diet composed of raw/uncooked food); Flexitarian (a mostly vegetarian diet that allows occasional forays into meat and seafood); and Macrobiotic (incorporating locally and organically grown products such as grains, beans, and certain vegetables; carefully consumed in specific ratios).

Confused? It’s a lot to take in!

India, by far, boasts the largest number of vegetarians (as much as 30–40 percent of the population) — understandable in a land where the cow is considered sacred. Next comes the Middle East, then Europe, followed by America and Australia.

In many cases, vegetarianism is practiced not due to religious or ethical considerations, but because of its health benefits, of which there are many. But therein is the rub: anyone following a strictly plant-based diet can run the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies — vegetarians must make a conscious effort to ensure that they are getting enough calcium, iron, vitamins B12 and D3, the omega-3 fat DHA, sulfur, and zinc, among other nutrients. It’s quite possible to do this successfully through food alone, but supplements in moderation can also be helpful.

Here are a few other facts about vegetarianism (and its opposite, carnivorism):

  • The average American consumes well over 200 pounds of meat annually, not including seafood. There are some researchers who argue that while the human body (obviously!) has the ability to digest meat, our teeth are far better suited to handle a plant-based diet.
  • A population on a strictly plant-based diet would almost certainly be beneficial to the environment — less domesticated livestock equals a reduction in greenhouse gases. Also, shockingly, it takes approximately 25,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat, as opposed to 25 gallons of water for the same amount of wheat.
  • Among the other health benefits of a vegetarian diet, in general, practitioners have a high metabolic rate, a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and (importantly for many!) a more pleasant body odor.
  • And a fun fact — the actor who originated the role of Ronald McDonald (the mascot for the hamburger chain, for those living in a cave!) is now a vegetarian.

Vegetarianism has been around for centuries, but vegetarian restaurants were a relatively long time in coming. The first one opened to the public in New York City in 1895; aptly (and perhaps unimaginatively), it was named Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1. Its co-founder was Louise Volkmann, a dynamic German immigrant who was ahead of her time — she was a suffragette, an energetic volunteer for various civil liberties causes, a community organizer and peace activist who also taught music in her spare time, when she had some. Unfortunately for her, the restaurant’s backers, the New York Vegetarian Society, were also anti-alcohol, which was probably a non-starter for dining establishments during that era; indeed, the restaurant held on for less than a year.

Restaurateurs in other parts of the country were willing to take a chance (especially who included a few options for carnivores), and by shortly after the turn of the century, there were vegetarian eateries in Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, and San Jose. Most of these served grain-based dishes, with a variety of creative substitutes for eggs, cheese, and meats (one had on its menu a roast composed of crushed nuts). In Michigan, health aficionados flocked to the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company to feast on such singularly unappetizing items as Dry Gluten and Gruel. (They probably tasted better than they sound, and evidently patrons believed the health benefits were worth it.)

What else did these restaurants serve? From a Chicago establishment named Mortimer Pure Food Restaurant, circa 1903, here is a snapshot (courtesy of Restaurant-ing Through History). You’ll notice one common denominator (bread):

Asparagus on toast
Roosevelt [vegetable] cutlet, with mushroom sauce, bread and butter
Poached eggs, with rice and curry sauce, bread and butter
Spinach, with poached eggs on toast
Broiled new potatoes on toast
Spaghetti a la Mortimer
Broiled fresh mushrooms on toast
Baked beans

Through the years, of course, vegetarian restaurants have expanded their horizons, developing recipes that are as appetizing as they are healthy (and ethical). A seminal moment in the American vegetarian movement was the 1971 publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s book Diet for a Small Planet, which suddenly made vegetarianism trendy and not the exclusive province of hippies. A young London “natural food” restaurateur, Gregory Sams, was the first to take the veggie burger into the mainstream — fans of his fare included John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Later, fast food emporiums capitalized on the trend — developing their own versions of veggie burgers and other meatless items.

Chicago area vegetarians are fortunate to have numerous dining options, including Chicago Diner (Wrigleyville), Chowpatti (Arlington Heights), Green Zebra (West Town), Karyn's Fresh Corner (Lincoln Park), Lula (Logan Square), MANA Food Bar (Bucktown), Soul Vegetarian East (Chatham/Avalon Park), Uru Swati (West Rogers Park/West Ridge), and Victory's Banner (Roscoe Village). Check out what our reviewers had to say, and give them a try!