After witnessing the abuse of dairy cows firsthand, a shy British farm boy decided to stop drinking milk. Already a vegetarian and a conscientious war objector, young Donald Watson couldn't reconcile his philosophical pacifism with what he had seen. Though the idea of avoiding animal foods goes back to ancient times, it was Watson who first created the word vegan (the beginning and end of “vegetarian,” he reasoned).
In 1944, he joined together a handful of like-minded people into the first vegan society in the UK, corresponding and spreading ideas via old-fashioned mail. Four years later, the first vegan association was born in the United States. Watson went on to live a mostly quiet life as a solitary craftsman and an organic farmer. Determined to outlive those who would criticize his ideas, he regularly hiked through the British countryside hills until his death at 95 years of age. He had been vegan for 61 years, and vegetarian for more than 80.
Religious ascetics and philosophers have dabbled with vegetarian and mostly vegan diets throughout history. Among the ancient Greeks, mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras mentored a group of vegetarians in the sixth century B.C., and at the same time in India, the ancient Jains were already practicing ahimsa, pledging not to kill by avoiding animal flesh and eggs. More recent philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer, have shaped the modern face of veganism, and many religious groups, from the Rastafarians to the Eastern Orthodox Church continue to promote the merits of veganism in achieving physical and spiritual purity.
But it is mostly thanks to Donald Watson, an unlikely and modest revolutionary, that veganism today thrives around the world. Nearly all major cities, and many smaller ones, boast one or more vegan restaurants, and hundreds of businesses proudly stamp their wares—from mock caviar to cruelty-free condoms—with a vegan certification.
So what does it mean?
While a vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of all animals, including pigs, cows, birds, fish, and all other sea animals, a vegan diet avoids the meat of animals as well as foods that come from animals, including milk and all other dairy products (butter, cheese, ice cream) and eggs. The many processed foods such as mayonnaise and baked goods that include eggs or dairy are also eliminated. Many packaged and premade goods contain hidden animal ingredients that vegans also avoid. The most common of these are dairy derivatives such as whey, lactose, casein, caseinate, and sodium caseinate, albumen from eggs, and gelatin, which is derived from animal collagens.
Some vegans take it a step further, avoiding foods that may have used animals in their production, such as some white sugars and wines. A few foods, primarily honey, cause debate as to whether they may be called vegan or not. Though honey can easily be substituted by agave nectar or brown rice syrup, other questionable foods such as civet coffee and truffles sniffed by pigs may give pause to vegan gourmands.
Without fatty meats and rich creams, vegan chefs are some of the most inspired artists on the planet, drawing upon an international array of herbs and spices to create naturally nourishing and cholesterol-free dishes. With a bit of experimentation and a few good substitutes, you'll soon be on your way to exploring the many incarnations of vegan cuisine: from heirloom produce and exotic treasures to down-home traditional comfort foods and the most indulgent cavity-inducing desserts a sweet tooth could dream of.