Host of the World Vegetarian Congress
By Rynn Berry
All at once Scotland seems both the likeliest and the
unlikeliest place to have hosted the 35th World Vegetarian Congress.
It wasnt so
long ago that Scotland was considered to be the uncouth, Wild
West of Europe. When Mary Stuart left the glittering court of
France to travel to Scotland and become its queen, the French court
reacted as if she had elected to commit suicide. Truly, it was a barbaric
place. The Lords of Scotland spent their days in the saddle, hunting
animals and waging blood feuds; and their nights, carousing, brawling,
It also has to be remembered that Scotland is the original home of beef
production. Commercial cattle ranching in the U.S. was organized and
financed by Scottish banks, and the largest cattle ranches in the U.S.
are still owned by families of Scottish descent.
It is still the worlds leading wool producer. The countryside
seems to be upholstered with sheep and cattle being reared for wool
and beef. Everywhere you look an animal is grazing.
The national Scottish dish, which is proudly served at every pub and
which poet Robert Burns nicknamed the chieftain of puddings,
is one of the most depraved dishes on the planet. It is called haggis,
and is made by stuffing the large stomach of the sheep with the minced
lungs, liver and heart plus sheep fat, oatmeal, salt and pepper. The
stomach is inflated, sewn up and boiled for three hours, then it is
punctured and served at the table. Haggis has given rise to a number
of other awful offal dishes that are popular in Scotland and Northern
England called blood puddings.
But, astonishingly enough, every pub and restaurant has at least one
vegetarian dish on offer, and some of the best vegetarian restaurants
in Europe are to be found in Edinburgh.
As the author of the Vegan Guide to New York City, I had a more
than casual interest in sampling their cuisine. Finding them all, however,
posed a wee challenge. The Vegetarian Guide to Edinburgh, about
which Id heard so much, is now completely out of date. Its author
had decamped to Ireland, and cant be coaxed to return to do an
update. So we had to surf the Internet and download references to Edinburgh
restaurants from several international Web sites. But the effort certainly
paid off. Vegetarian restaurants such as Banns Vegetarian Café
(5 Hunter Square), which specializes in Vegan Haggis with Neaps (mashed
turnips) and Tatties (mashed potatoes), and an array of vegan Indian
and Thai curries; Black Bos (57-61 Blackfriars St.), featuring
Cordon Vert-style vegetarian food, such as Eggplant Stuffed with Tomatoes
and Herbs, and Vegan Haggis Balls with Tofu and Rosemary in a Ginger
Wine Sauce (you will struggle to find a non-lacto vegetarian dish, but
the expert chefs are more than willing to cook a vegan adaptation of
any dish on the menu.); Hendersons Bistro Bar (4 Hanover St.),
the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Edinburgh, which serves Nut Loafs
and Saladsand even the all-vegetarian Baked Potato Shop (56 Cockburn
St.) with a range of vegan toppings that include vegan Haggis and Vegi
Chilistand in comparison with the best vegetarian restaurants
in New York and San Francisco.
Also, on the credit side of the ledger: Two months ago, the Scottish
parliament outlawed fox-hunting, making it the first European legislative
body to pass such humane legislation.
The 35th World Vegetarian Congress
The week-long conference was hosted by the International Vegetarian
Union and held on the bosky campus of Herriot-Watt University, located
on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Rabbits scampered on the grassy swards
and ducks sailed in flotillas on the ponds. Although the temperature
never rose above 73 degrees and the air was autumnally chilly in the
evenings, the days were almost 24 hours long. By 3:30 a.m., the sun
was streaming through the bedroom windows, and it didnt set until
after 11 at night.
Although this was the smallest World Congress that Ive attended,
it was gratifying to meet delegates from as far afield as Australia,
Singapore, Russia, Korea, and a sizeable contingent from Japan. In fact,
I tried out my broken Japanese on a young woman who works as a professional
window washer; she earns a good living climbing to the top of Tokyos
skyscrapers and applying her squeegee to begrimed glass. Hiroko said
that when she was employed at a chick hatchery in Japan, she was so
appalled by the cruelty she witnessed that she promptly changed her
diet to veganism, and her job from chick hatcher to window washer;
and her clients are seeing much more clearly now.
Despite the diminutive size of the conference, there was an impressive
lineup of speakers. Among those who stood out were Derek Antrobus, a
journalist who talked about the rise of vegetarian culture in England;
Ruth Heidrich, a world-class marathoner and tri-athlete [see interview
in Satya, May 2002], who said that it is important for our bodies to
make contact with the earth through the vibration of each strike of
the foot; Nikolai Kalanov, who spoke about vegetarianism in Russia,
past and present.
Francisco Martin, a long-time raw-foodist and the founder of Spains
first animal rights organization as well as the Vegan Society of Spain,
spoke about his campaign to abolish bull-fighting in the rural provinces
of Spain. Dawn Carr of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
how the remorseless methods of factory farming are now being applied
to aquaculture and fish farming.
Claude Pasquini, a professor of Wildlife Biology from Luxembourg, emphasized
that we humans are an aggregate of cells and that when we eat we are
feeding our cells; and a vegan diet is simply the most efficient way
of feeding the billions of cells all working synergistically to animate
us as living beings. The cells eat, excrete, rest and seemingly possess
a will of their own, but they work together for the greater good of
the organism. That each of us is but a colony of cells, Dr. Pasquini
avers, is all the more reason why we should empathize with the smallest
Im sorry to report that the cells that Dr. Pasquini was talking
about were not particularly well-fed at the conference; the food left
a great deal to be desired. Of course, food is the last reason why
go to vegetarian conferences, but had the Congress organizers been
astute enough to recruit some of the local Edinburgh vegetarian chefs,
Congress would have been far more enjoyable.
The final banquet on Saturday was followed by several hours of authentic
Scottish dancing in which most of the attendees gleefully participated.
While in Edinburgh for a post-conference tour, some friends and I decided
to practice a little vegan activism. We went around to the custom kilt-makers
shops and identified ourselves as vegans who were ethically opposed
to wearing wool. Could they craft a custom-made kilt out of synthetic
wool, say, fleece or cotton? No way!! they expostulated.
Kilts have to be made of wool!
Although Edinburgh has been called The Athens of the North, which
may be a fitting epithet architecturally and academically, ethically
and dietetically, Edinburgh has a long way to go before it becomes
Athens that we associate with such ethical vegetarian thinkers as Pythagoras,
Plato, Socrates, Theophrastus, and Plutarch.
Rynn Berry is the Historical Advisor to the North American
Vegetarian Society, and the author of such books as Famous Vegetarians
and Their Favorite Recipes ($18.95 postpaid) and Food for the Gods:
Vegetarianism and the Worlds Religions ($22.95 postpaid). To
order either of these books or the 2002 edition of the Vegan Guide
York City ($11.50 postpaid), send a check to: Rynn Berry, 159 Eastern
Parkway, Suite 2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238.