Thursday, February 2, 2023

St. Louis’ First Vegetarian Restaurant

St. Louis Vegetarian Society was the catalyst for the city’s first vegetarian café. It wasn’t a culinary venture, but a political one. The society was founded in 1901 and met twice a month in its members’ homes until 1903 when it began holding public meetings at the Aschenbroedel Hall in Pine. It featured testimonials from Civil War veterans and athletes as well as business leaders who spoke out about the moral and health benefits of eating meat-free. The talks were followed by performances by the Self Culture Club, and Vegetarian Orchestras. While local newspapers hurled ridicule at SLVS, they also invited members to write food columns. George Heid (a local chemist) was the president of the group in 1902. He explained how to forage wild mushrooms and prepare them as a meal without accidentally poisoning your body.

Edgar Perkins, the club secretary, set out to find a restaurateur who would make vegetarian or plant-based dishes. “St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. “He will bet the eater that he can’t tell which butter is which substitute.”

The entire society attended the grand opening “a physical culture restaurant” in March 1904. This was a location “at a point of Olive Street calculated to catch the attention of World’s Fair visitors.” Many of those who ordered nut-brown and protose were people traveling from Liverpool to attend that year’s International Vegetarian Congress.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, which was stomach-turning and a result of rising meat prices, increased American vegetarian societies. The Post reported that on New Year’s Day 1908, there was a new smell at the St. Louis Vegetarian Cafe. It contained “chicken croquettes (made from peanuts), mock tenderloins (made with peanuts), imitation Veal loaf (made with peanuts), peanut meal pudding, peanut coffee,” as well as “chicken croquettes” and “mock tenderloins (made with peanuts), and would not tolerate eating peanut steaks in the harsh Midwestern winters.”

It’s surprising to see that veganism has become mainstream in a world where veganism is commonplace. In 2002, however, The Hungry Buddha was still the only downtown cafe where vegetarians were not forced to eat iceberg salad or French fries.