How Veganism Took Hold in America

Spring salad plated from Gold Cash Gold in Detroit, MI.

Spring salad plated from Gold Cash Gold in Detroit, MI.

Story by Alicia Kennedy

Alicia Kennedy is a Brooklyn-based food and culture writer. She is an editor with Edible Brooklyn and Manhattan, and regularly contributes to the Village Voice and other publications.

Social media is spreading news of new dining options for vegans.

Vegans love to talk about food. It’s ironic, right? The omnivorous world often understands only restriction when a diet free of animal products comes up, but for vegans, the options are boundless and growing — and they’re actually good. Through social media, we find each other and multiply; the #vegan hashtag on Instagram has over 26 million pictures and counting. We show off our most photogenic smoothies, share our best cashew mozzarella pizzas and excitedly snap vegan menus found in unexpected places (like a sports bar on Long Island). There are a ton of memes about how much vegans love to tell you they’re vegan, but that’s because talking about it generally brings us more great meals. We want to scarf down every piece of Buffalo cauliflower, just like any chicken wing lover would.

The population is still small, though: It’s been reported that only 7.3 million people in the United States are vegetarian and about 1 million of those people are vegan. Neither group eats meat, but some vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs while vegans avoid all animal products. But the appeal of dairy and meat alternatives is growing as veganism has been rebranded as “plant-based” — a term less strongly tied to processed, soy-based faux-meats and more connected to the general move toward eating local, seasonal vegetables. General Mills even recently invested $18 million in Kite Hill, a nut cheese company. Surviving without animal products becomes more mainstream every day.

Vegetarianism has ancient roots, but began to become popular in the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century. Amos Bronson Alcott (father to "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott) founded two Massachusetts communities, Temple School and Fruitland, championing the vegan diet before it even had a name. The distinction between veganism and vegetarianism was made in the 1940s, as more people decided to abstain from dairy and eggs; “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 when he first published his quarterly Vegan News newspaper.

In 1971, Francis Moore Lappé published the seminal vegetarian cookbook "Diet for a Small Planet" and restaurants began to follow. Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, and Bloodroot in Bridgeport, Connecticut, both opened in the 1970s and are still going, adding more and more vegan items to their menus over time. Veganism spread even further through punk and hardcore communities in the ’80s and ’90s, spawning seminal cookbook magazine "Soy, Not Oi!" in 1989. Now the number of fully vegan restaurants in the country is so huge that one woman embarked on a yearlong road trip in 2011 and chronicled visiting over 500 of them in a memoir, "Will Travel for Vegan Food."

The increasing number of options in the 2010s has social media’s influence written all over it. When there’s a way for a niche population to communicate, the message spreads. I once went on a trip to the Hudson Valley and posted a picture of a piece of butter-free coconut cake I couldn’t believe I’d found at High Falls Kitchenette , which led to a local Instagram friend telling me where else I should eat — like the outstanding Outdated Café, where they make their own walnut mylk — and getting me into a vegan baking seminar with pastry chef and cookbook author Fran Costigan. My trip was made that much better by posting a picture of a slice of cake, which is why I relentlessly photograph everything I eat (even if meat-eating friends mock me).

Pulin Modi, who works at and has been vegan for 19 years, tells me that he also relies on friends’ recommendations while traveling. “In Portland, I generally check in with friends from Food Fight! Grocery and Herbivore Clothing to find out what's best since they live there and run local businesses,” he says. “In Los Angeles, I ask friends who work for nonprofits there like PETA or Mercy for Animals.” When you know who to talk to (or whose Instagram feed to stalk), you can find everything from cute cupcakes at Austin’s Capital City Bakery to the challah French toast at Philadelphia’s Miss Rachel’s Pantry.

What the vegan community lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm. Look at New York City’s Vegan Shop-Up, a now bimonthly market that’s been going strong for five years; local makers of baked goods, sandwiches and more all gather together to sell their wares, and it’s always so packed it’s hard to move around. Brooklyn has its own nondairy cheese shop, Riverdel ; Minneapolis is home to the country’s first vegan butcher shop, The Herbivorous Butcher ; and Portland’s got a vegan supermarket, Food Fight! Grocery. We’ve come a long way from a couple of 19th century communities, and we’re showing no signs of slowing down.

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