A century ago ‘ordinary’ people found vegetarians a bit ridiculous

Sylvia WhitemanDecember 2, 20229:00 am

I was amused to read an article in the newspaper about ‘vegan’ Sinterklaas candy, a ‘delicious evening without animal ingredients’. Marzipan without egg, and no milk chocolate letters. How many Dutch people actually eat vegan, I wondered. About 1 percent, it turned out. That’s not much. Now that I was googling anyway: how many Dutch people actually eat no meat at all? 20 percent, I guessed, but I was miles off. Only 5 percent of the Dutch are true vegetarians. 95 percent eat meat.

I was reminded of a remarkable booklet I had received from a reader earlier that week. It had belonged to his grandfather, and it had been read to pieces. The author was Felix Hageman, the title On the sunny side. I vaguely remembered that Hageman was a columnist for The Telegraph was, a kind of Rob Hoogland avant la lettre.

I started to read. They turned out to be everyday, funny Amsterdam experiences from about a hundred years ago. About landladies, rowing, driving, dogs, and… about vegetarianism. ‘I had a friend introduce me to a decent family whose members were both vegetarians and water-curers. (…) all members of this curious family looked like used napkins, like clothes hangers, like ends of twine, with a color like potato sacks or gray peas.’

The vegetarian family (‘De Kraalmeyers’) convinces the ‘I’ that he is ‘full of bad fats’, ‘full of bad juices from top to bottom, sir – your neck is too fat. You should also become a viggetarian for a month or so – doesn’t it help, it won’t do any harm, will it?

The ‘I’ agrees to get rid of it. But his new vegetarian friends keep an eye on him. Not only do they see to it that he takes a cold water bath three times a day, but they also sit at his table.

“What have you got there?” my executioner asked. ‘Gelderland sausage? No man – that’s forbidden!’ And he took the appetizing dish from my nose, walked back to the hall door, shouted for the missus, and said to the man: ‘Now listen carefully, miss – sir is absolutely not allowed to have any meat or sausage, do you understand? That’s his death. In the morning and at 12 o’clock you give him an egg, or biscuit or cheese. No meat, understand?”

The ‘me’ soon becomes ‘skeleton-like’, ‘so frighteningly thin’ that it startles his good-natured fat aunt and persuades him to eat a plate of chowder with meat. “I had given up the fight. I renounced all vegetarian bliss and cold-water delights — and in three minutes the plate of soup, the delicious, precious jokes of meat, were all swallowed up.’

The ‘me’ then eats a steak every day for a month and ‘after that month I felt human again. Fortunately I was full of ‘bad fat’ again and felt like reborn. The faded color gave way to a decent civilian tint. (…) I did not die at the time. The Kraalmeyers claim this comes from the cold water and the beans.’

People became vegetarian a century ago not for reasons of animal suffering, but for their own well-being. Those who were vegetarian often did not drink alcohol and participated in ‘cold water baths’ or other spartan regimes. Most ‘ordinary’ people saw this way of life as exaggerated, a bit ridiculous and (see Felix Hageman) as unhealthy.

The roles have now been reversed. Not the vegetarians, but the meat eaters are considered unhealthy. The less meat the better; not only for the animals, but also for ourselves. (Is that actually an absolute medical truth or more of a belief?)

But the fact is that almost everyone in the Netherlands still eats meat. Then a ‘vegan Sinterklaas evening’ might be a bit far-fetched.