Hardcore Vegetarians May Have Had a Hand in the French Revolution


Unless you’re from new New Orleans and got knock-down, drag-out wasted last night in the French Quarter for Independence Day, Part Deaux (or unless you’re from French Canada or actual France), odds are you missed out on Saturday’s Bastille Day fete. That’s okay, though, because NPR is offering you a plate of steaming hot French Revolution vegetables to make up for all the booze and pastry you didn’t have.

Little know fact: the middle and upper classes revolutioned in 18th century France too and they did it, argues author Tristram Stuart in The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism, partly through a defiant strain of vegetarianism to supplement all the wanton bloodletting. Stuart cites a passage from Rosseau’s Emile that suggests kids don’t really have a taste for meat until their parents force it down their gullets, and that eating meat, therefore, is “unnatural” (he also identifies milk as one of many “vegetable foods,” but whatevs). From Rosseau and other revolutionary-era writers, Stuart, in turn, suggests that the French Revolution went beyond just lopping off the heads of aristocrats and feeding all the poor people.

When revolutionaries fought in the French Revolution, some of them got bound up in this idea that animals, too, were in need of liberation from oppression and from slavery, and therefore, they built animal rights into their revolutionary ideology.

If that assertion sounds fantastically progressive, that’s because it probably is. Independent researcher and historical cookbook author (which, by the way, sounds like an awesome career choice) Jim Chevalier points out that Stuart might be getting a little ahead of himself in praising the progressivity of revolutionary thinking — thought Rosseau writes about meat being unnatural, he also writes about serving it to dinner guests. Fine, fine, but Stuart, after all, is really talking about how modern vegetarian convictions come out of attitudes developed in 17th and 18th century France. “We’re talking more about international justice,” he writes, “and whether or not rich countries are depriving poor countries by taking grain off the world market to feed their livestock.” Just take the Marquis de Valady, who, as a contemporary of Rosseau, writes voluminously on the benefits of a vegetable diet.

Salon’s Laura Miller also takes issue with certain aspects of Stuart’s argument, but she acknowledges that Valady practiced a brand of “political vegetarianism” in recording how other people reacted when he offered to make sleepover guests bacon and then surprised them with soy bacon strips. Miller reminds us that proponents of 17th and 18th century vegetarianism weren’t necessarily advocating a vegetable diet (vegetables weren’t really considered that healthy at the time, which should remind us all that we’re always just one fortuitous health study away from eating bacon-wrapped chocolate filets three meals a day) so much as suggesting that people abstain from eating meat, which really puts the rampant gore of the Revolution in a different perspective when you think about all those people gnawing on beets when what they really wanted was a nice, gristly shank of something that used to be alive.

Let Them Eat Kale: Vegetarians And The French Revolutions [NPR]

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