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Eating the Past: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Green lettuce leaves
Pezibear, Photographer

Laura: Welcome to another episode of Eating the Past. I’m Laura
Gelfand, and on today’s show we’ll continue exploring the
fascinating history of plant-based eating and famous vegetarians.

I’m thrilled to have Michelle Davis joining me again today from her
home in Los Angeles. Michelle has published five fabulous, best-
selling vegan cookbooks, in over eight languages.

And currently, she is heading up her own weekly newsletter, Stir the
Pot, which is full of fresh, new recipes and all the hot food gossip you
can handle.

In addition to all of that, Michelle studied history and so she is
the perfect person to join me in chatting about Mary Shelley,
the vegetarian author of Frankenstein, who created a
vegetarian creature!

Welcome Michelle!

Michelle: hi Laura! That’s right, the mother of science fiction was
also vegetarian and the monster in her most famous book doesn’t
eat animals.

Laura: Frankenstein has been explored in all sorts of ways, but
the vegetarian themes in the book don’t seem to have inspired a
great deal of academic zeal. The circle in which Mary Shelley
lived and worked included a number of vegetarians, including
her father and her husband, who authored two vegetarian
texts, including “a vindication of natural diet.”

For these early Nineteenth-century radicals opting not to eat meat
was a political choice, can you talk a bit about that?

Michelle: Yes! Romantic thinkers viewed vegetarianism as a more natural
diet that reflected their desires to have a deeper commune with nature.
With the industrial revolution in full swing, they also rebelled against profit
driven -markets, and increased meat prices. Eating a meatless diet was a
way to demonstrate your objections to the rise in consumer culture.

Meat was also seen as social marker for the higher classes. Thus by
rejecting meat romantic thinkers saw themselves as also rejecting
the class system and class separation.

Laura: It’s so interesting, because there really is a bit of that
built into contemporary plant-based diets. Mary Shelley’s
creature is an embodiment of the French philosopher Rousseau’s
‘noble savage,’ and the way that he learns about himself and
the world around him follows the steps outlined by Rousseau
when discussing the ‘natural man’. What role do you think
vegeterianism plays in the creature’s development?

Michelle: I think it’s one of the ways he demonstrates his humanity
and natural goodness like Rousseau hypothesized. When he imagines
his ideal future and partner, the gentleness of diet is central. He says “my
food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my
appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.”

He continues “the picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you
must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and
cruelty.” He just wants to return to Eden in a way.

Laura: What a sweet monster. Mary Shelley’s peeps promoted
their choice not to eat meat as one that would help eliminate
violence on the domestic front, and ultimately between
nations. Do you think these kinds of ideas still animate
discussions about plant-based diets?

Michelle: I think the modern and vegetarian movements are more
focused on first ending the suffering of animals and then, perhaps
people. But I think any room we can make for kindness and gentleness
in our lives, the better. It certainly won’t hurt.

Laura: Amen to that. I can’t thank you enough for joining me
for these shows and for sharing your knowledge and
perspectives with me and our listeners. I want to encourage all
of you to sign up for Michelle’s weekly newsletter, Stir the Pot!

Tune in next week for even more delicious discussion. Join us
for Eating the Past every Sunday at noon, right before The Splendid
Table, on your UPR station.