Kay Stepkin (center) at an installation of the National Vegetarian Museum Credit: courtesy National Vegetarian Museum

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K
ay Stepkin’s path to opening the National Vegetarian Museum, the first
vegetarian museum in the country, began with James Bond.

Growing up in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, she had never met a vegetarian.
She associated healthy eating with the handful of natural food stores
around the city that sold pills, packaged grains, and sometimes fresh eggs.
After college, she moved to Berkeley. She didn’t meet any vegetarians
there, either. But one night, bored and browsing through her roommate’s
book collection, she randomly opened up Thunderball by Ian
Fleming. It begins with Bond’s handler, M, giving the spy a stern lecture
about his poor nutrition and insisting he go to a health farm where,
naturally, Bond discovers evil doings afoot. But that wasn’t what captured
Stepkin’s imagination.

“In his talk to James,” she remembers, “M talks about how we remove so many
dozens of nutrients from grains, then add back seven and call it
‘enriched.’ It fascinated me for some unknown reason. I had never heard of
anything like this, how food related to health. I didn’t know we processed
food.”

Stepkin went to the library to find out more. She discovered the works of
the nutritionist Adele Davis, who, while not a vegetarian herself, argued
persuasively about the effects of diet on general health. Stepkin began
eating brown rice and learned how to make whole-wheat bread. One day she
realized she hadn’t eaten meat for several weeks and didn’t miss it at all.
(She backslid only once, a one-day corned beef binge in the early 80s. “I
don’t remember how good vegetarian food tasted, I just remember how good
that corned beef was.”)

Stepkin brought her vegetarianism back to Chicago. In 1971—the year the
Union Stockyards closed, she points out—she opened up a bakery, the Bread
Shop, in Lakeview, near the corner of Halsted and Roscoe. She used only
organic whole-grain flour, which she purchased from a health food store on
the far south side. At the time she believed—mistakenly, it turns out—it
was the first vegetarian establishment in the history of Chicago. And for
several years, it remained one of the few. But in the late 1970s, the
animal rights movement began to grow, and in 1987, John Robbins’s book Diet for a New America brought together the strands of human
health, animal suffering, and environmental impact into a powerful argument
for vegetarianism not just as a personal choice but as a social movement.
“It pepped everything right up again,” says Stepkin. “Up until a few years
ago, [the vegetarian] movement seemed steady. And now I feel we’re in the
middle of an enormous explosion. There was one business in ’71, and now
there are over 50 today.”

In 1996, the same year the Bread Shop closed, Michael James, the owner of
the Heartland Cafe, invited Stepkin on to his radio show to talk about the
history of the vegetarian movement in Chicago. She shared what she knew,
but afterward, she decided to do some research. “I went on the Internet,”
she recalls. “It blew my mind. I learned Chicago had a vegetarian history
going back to the 1800s. They even had vegetarian restaurants back then! I
was floored.”

The first vegetarians in America arrived from England in the 1700s. They
called themselves Bible Christians, and they were inspired to keep a
meatless diet by the Hindus and Jains in India. (“A case of colonizers
learning from the colonized,” says Stepkin.) Like everyone else, the
vegetarians moved west. In 1890, five of them formed the Chicago Vegetarian
Society. In 1893, vegetarians from around the world converged at the
Columbian Exposition for the Vegetarian Congress. This made Chicago—despite
its status as Hog Butcher to the World—a major center for vegetarianism. By
the turn of the century, the Chicago Vegetarian Society boasted 100,000
members, the Vegetarian Eating Club hosted an annual meatless Thanksgiving
dinner at the University of Chicago, and the Pure Food Lunchroom opened up
in the Loop. Several more vegetarian restaurants followed in other
neighborhoods around the city, serving not only vegetables but nut-based
fake meat. The publication of The Jungle in 1906, with its
detailed and disgusting accounts of the inside of a meat-packing plant,
also helped the cause.

And then the movement died. Stepkin’s still not sure why, though she
suspects World War I may have had something to do with it; other social
movements, including feminism and civil rights, also stalled out around
that time. There was a revival, though, in the late 30s. Stepkin has
collected piles of memorabilia, which she keeps in her Lincoln Park
apartment. This includes cookbooks, leaflets, and newsletters likeThe American Vegetarian and The Vegetarian Fruitarian Humanitarian (which in addition to news
also published poetry about the sad consequences of meat eating). In 1948,
John Maxwell, who owned a vegetarian restaurant on Wabash, represented the
American Vegetarian Party in the presidential race. But the 50s killed the
movement again.

Last year Stepkin decided to spread the word about the history of
vegetarianism by organizing all the material she had collected into a
museum, the first of its kind. “I thought if I didn’t know it, I who had
been into this for so many years, neither did my contemporaries. And if my
contemporaries don’t know, young people don’t know. History makes you
stronger. It’s like the difference between being an orphan and having
parents: you have someone to guide you.”

At the moment the National Vegetarian Museum consists of one exhibit, “What
Does It Mean to Be Vegetarian?,” on 12 seven-by-three-foot panels. Since
February 2017 it’s been traveling around the city, finding temporary homes
in various city and suburban libraries and sponsoring guest lectures. (In
March, it’s at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library.) When
Stepkin started the project, she thought she’d have a permanent location by
now, but she’s not entirely displeased by the traveling. “I’m not sure how
many people would come across the city to go to a museum,” she says, “so we
go to them.” The libraries also set aside books so visitors can read more,
the way Stepkin did.

Today the movement continues to grow. Stepkin notes that, according to a
Vegetarian Resource Group poll, 6 percent of Americans in their 20s
identify as vegetarian, as opposed to about 2 percent of Americans over 65.
“It amazes me really,” she says. “It’s astounding that people who are sick,
who can read the same stuff I read about the importance of diet, don’t want
to change.”   v