Chicago makes history with first vegetarian museum

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Chicago is home to museums centered around art, science, nature, children’s interests, various ethnic groups, broadcast communications and even surgical science. It can now add the vegetarian/vegan movement to the list.

Chicago resident Kay Stepkin, who is herself a living part of the city’s rich vegetarian/vegan history, created what is believed to be the first museum of its type in the country and likely in the world. The idea for the National Vegetarian Museum surfaced for her about three years ago after she appeared on a local radio show to discuss the history of the vegetarian movement in Chicago.

The appearance went so well that Stepkin was asked to speak to other groups around the city, which forced her to dig deeper into the history to be better prepared. That research prompted the idea of the museum. “I knew if I didn’t know about our history, neither did anyone else,” she said. Using a private donation of $90,000, Stepkin, with the help of a museum consultant, created a traveling multipanel and video exhibit that is currently making monthlong appearances at various public libraries around the city. The exhibit will remain on the city’s South Side at the Avalon library (8148 S. Stony Island Ave.) through the middle of May 18 and then reopen later the same day at the West Belmont library branch at 3104 N. Narragansett Ave. Stepkin hopes to find a permanent location for the exhibit by February and come up with a long-term funding plan. She also would like to send traveling versions around the country tailored for individual cities and/or organizations.

Chicago’s rich veggie past
The exhibit, which is titled What does it Mean to be Vegetarian is composed of 12 interactive panels and begins with a quote from Albert Einstein: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” The exhibit touches on the many benefits of a vegetarian/vegan diet for human health, the environment and animals, including a statistic that up to 51 percent of greenhouse gases come from livestock.

While some may have the perception that the vegetarian/vegan movement is a relatively recent phenomena of the 1960s, it is actually thousands of years old, according to the exhibit. One panel quotes such ancient sources as the Book of Genesis. Stepkin said she learned that a vegetarian group from England calling itself Bible Christians arrived on the shores of this country in the early 1800s. The vegetarian epicenter began in Philadelphia and moved to Chicago by the late 1800s. The exhibit features a photo of the Vegetarian Federal Union’s exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The first vegetarian restaurant in Chicago — the Pure Food Lunch Room — opened in 1900 and six years later, Upton Sinclair’s famous novel “The Jungle” shed light on the deplorable conditions at the Chicago’s Union Stockyards, according to the exhibit.

Importance of community
Stepkin enters the historical timeline in 1971 by opening the Bread Shop and then the Bread Shop Restaurant across the street in the 3400 block of North Halsted Street. The restaurant later became the Chicago Diner, which still exists today as a bedrock of the city’s vegetarian/vegan community. She said she opened the restaurant with the belief that everyone would soon be going vegetarian “because it’s so obvious this is the only way to go.”

Stepkin, who became vegetarian in 1970 (and vegan many years later) after coming across a reference in a James Bond spy novel about the importance of healthy eating, served as president of the Chicago Vegetarian Society between 1995 and 2001. She also wrote a vegan column for the Chicago Tribune and is founder of the nonprofit entity Go Veggie!. The exhibit lists many well-known vegetarians and vegans, and national organizations as part of its final section on the importance of community.  It Stepkin’s hope the museum will pique interest in vegetarianism and veganism, while giving some support to those who already have made the change and yet live in a predominantly meat-eating world. “I think it will help make them stronger,” she said. “Because you are not just floating through this world as a vegetarian alone. This can give you strength to know you are part of a community that has been here for some time.”