Rejecting meat, Alison McKee 

The Compassionate Contrarians: A History of Vegetarians in Aotearoa New Zealand
Catherine Amey
Rebel Press, $20.00,
IBSN 9780473274405

New Zealanders are prolific buyers of cookery books; however, an interest in the social history of eating and cooking has emerged in the last 10 years, with several academic studies now being published not only for research but also for general reading.

Catherine Amey’s The Compassionate Contrarians: A History of Vegetarians In Aotearoa New Zealand spans two centuries – from the vegetarian diet of the East Coast Māori tribe Te Tai Rāwhiti to the present day urban food markets and stalls – of vegetarians, vegetarianism and animal rights in New Zealand. Amey’s use of colonial diaries, newspaper reports, archival photographs and ephemera engage the reader with tales of ordinary, as well as well known, New Zealanders, such as suffragette leader Kate Sheppard, and Adventist, doctor and parliamentarian Sir Maui Pomare. Some choose not to include meat eating in their diet due to health, spirituality, purity, animal rights or environmental concerns. As Amey points out, the rejection of meat in the colonial diet in a colony that was to become prosperous through the exportation of meat and milk products was seen not only as unpatriotic, but also as unchristian and impractical.

Early chapters explore those who first spoke out against the slaughter of animals for consumption, or advocated for healthier, plant-based diets. Included are the Adventists (founders of the Sanitarium Health Food Company), the Theosophists, the suffragettes, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the purists who were appalled by slaughterhouse conditions and thought that animal production itself was unhealthy and disease ridden. The Theosophists were accused of promoting a queer and unreasonable fad, and others were thought of as unconventional, radical, eccentric, puritanical or suffering from spiritual disease.

Amey discusses the plight of vegetarian conscientious objectors in detention – from WWII to the Korean War – by providing an insight into the freethinking Hansen family, their numerous incarcerations in prisons and detention camps, and details the formation, during the late 1920s, of the Hansens’ so-called utopian community, Beeville, near Taupiri in the Waikato. A further chapter investigates the 1960-1990 counterculture, when many anti-war protesters, alternative lifestyle seekers, animal rights activists, anti-apartheid supporters, environmentalists and feminists, turned to vegetarianism and made it more visible in New Zealand society. The culmination of this era, perhaps, was the alcohol- and meat-free Nambassa Music Festivals, 1978-1981, attended by thousands.

Stepping through the 1940s, Amey introduces Theosophist Geoffrey Hodson, the  lifelong promoter of vegetarianism, animal rights campaigner and one of the founding members of the New Zealand Vegetarian Society. Hodson, also notable for his anti-fur campaign in the 1950s, was seen as influential up until his retirement in the 1970s. Amey also highlights the difficulties for vegetarian migrants – the early Chinese and, in particular, the influx of Dutch and Indian migrants in the 1950s – in adjusting to the New Zealand diet, heavy in meat and dairy products and laden with sugar. Amey suggests that the establishment of the Hare Krishna community north-west of Auckland in the 1970s and their subsequent opening of temples, food stalls and a vegetarian restaurant in central Auckland increased the popularity of restaurants specialising in Indian cuisine, although she notes that both Indian and Chinese cuisine suffered from westernisation and their growth was slow.

Amey’s final chapter summarises the years 1980-2000: the increased awareness of and subsequent backlashes against intensive pig and battery-hen farming, the influence of environmental movements, the New Zealand Anti-vivisection Society, and the increased use of media by organisations such as SAFE (Save Animals From Exploitation) to both educate urban New Zealanders and successfully pressure government agencies and producers.

Amey set out to identify those who spoke out for vegetarianism over two centuries. She presents an account of often outspoken and idealist New Zealanders who were prepared to be incarcerated, ridiculed and scorned for their beliefs. Although she is clearly an advocate for vegetarianism and acknowledges in her foreword her allegiances to the New Zealand Anti-vivisection Society and the Wellington Peace and Environmental Centre, her account is balanced, meticulously researched and referenced, as well as being written in an easy narrative style.

Alison McKee has an MA in gastronomy from the University of Adelaide.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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