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The National Vegetarian Museum’s traveling exhibit has been making its way around the Chicagoland area and has landed at the Evanston Public Library as part of the Local Art@EPL program. “What Does it Mean to be Vegetarian?” will be on display through April 2.
The exhibit consists of three large panels each showcasing an aspect of vegetarianism. The first panel highlights the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. The second portion presents the history of vegetarianism in Chicago and throughout the world. The final section focuses on the modern day vegetarian and vegan community.
“Our mission is to educate and demonstrate the benefits of a vegetarian and a vegan lifestyle for human health, the environment, and the well-being of all life,” National Vegetarian Museum founder Kay Stepkin said.
Ms. Stepkin has been leading the way for the vegetarian and vegan movement in Chicago for decades. An advocate for healthy living, Ms. Stepkin opened The Bread Shop, a whole-grain vegetarian bakery, in 1971 near the corner of Halsted and Roscoe. It was Chicago’s first modern-day vegetarian business, opening the very year the Union Stockyards closed.
At the time, Ms. Stepkin said she believed The Bread Shop was the very first vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. Many years later, she was inspired to research Chicago’s vegetarian history and, much to her surprise and delight, discovered vegetarianism in Chicago dates all the way back to the 1800s.
The Chicago Vegetarian Society was formed in 1889 and in 1893 vegetarians from around the world convened at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel “The Jungle,” a detailed account of the horrific treatment of animals and workers inside a Chicago meatpacking plant, also helped the cause.
By the turn of the century the Chicago Vegetarian Society had over 100,000 members and the first vegetarian restaurant in Chicago, the Pure Food Lunch Room, opened in the Loop in 1900.
By the 1920s the movement appears to have slowed down. Ms. Stepkin isn’t quite sure why, but suspects WWI had something to do with it. Vegetarianism revived a bit in the 1930s and ’40s and then again in the early ’70s. The last decade has seen a resurgence.
“Today the movement is thriving,” Ms. Stepkin said. “The highest percentage of vegans and vegetarians are coming from the twenty- and thirty-year-olds.”
Ms. Stepkin wants this younger generation to feel empowered by the movement’s history.
“I think if vegetarians know their history, it will make us stronger,” she said.
That idea is what inspired Ms. Stepkin to organize all her research and collected artifacts into a museum.
The museum doesn’t have a permanent location yet, but Ms. Stepkin said the traveling exhibit has allowed them to reach many people. It has been traveling around the city and suburbs since February 2017, but Ms. Stepkin said she expects to find a permanent spot in Chicago for the museum soon.
On March 24 at 4 p.m., the exhibit in Evanston will culminate with a guest speaker. Robert Grillo, the author of “Farm to Fable: The Fictions of our Animal-Consuming Culture,” will speak about “the food industry and how it manipulates our food choices,” Ms. Stepkin said.
“The March 24th event is free to the public,” EPL Event Coordinator Russ Johnson said. “It is a reception of sorts and an opportunity for community members to meet Kay, see the exhibit and maybe learn something new about our food industry.”