January 1, 1878
A quote from Anna Karenina might show Tolstoy's appreciation in beefsteak and distain for carbohydrates. However, Tolstoy became a egg-loving devout Christian vegetarian in older age.
On the day of the races at Krasnoe Selo, Vronsky had come earlier
than usual to eat beefsteak in the common messroom of the
regiment. He had no need to be strict with himself, as he had
very quickly been brought down to the required light weight; but
still he had to avoid gaining flesh, and so he eschewed
farinaceous and sweet dishes. He sat with his coat unbuttoned
over a white waistcoat, resting both elbows on the table, and
while waiting for the steak he had ordered he looked at a French
novel that lay open on his plate. He was only looking at the
book to avoid conversation with the officers coming in and out;
he was thinking.
He was thinking of Anna's promise to see him that day after the
races. But he had not seen her for three days, and as her
husband had just returned from abroad, he did not know whether
she would be able to meet him today or not, and he did not know
how to find out. He had had his last interview with her at his
cousin Betsy's summer villa. He visited the Karenins' summer
villa as rarely as possible. Now he wanted to go there, and he
pondered the question how to do it.
"Of course I shall say Betsy has sent me to ask whether she's
coming to the races. Of course, I'll go," he decided, lifting
his head from the book. And as he vividly pictured the happiness
of seeing her, his face lighted up.
"Send to my house, and tell them to have out the carriage and
three horses as quick as they can," he said to the servant, who
handed him the steak on a hot silver dish, and moving the dish up
he began eating.
From the billiard room next door came the sound of balls
knocking, of talk and laughter. Two officers appeared at the
entrance-door: one, a young fellow, with a feeble, delicate
face, who had lately joined the regiment from the Corps of Pages;
the other, a plump, elderly officer, with a bracelet on his
wrist, and little eyes, lost in fat.
Vronsky glanced at them, frowned, and looking down at his book as
though he had not noticed them, he proceeded to eat and read at
the same time.
"What? Fortifying yourself for your work?" said the plump
officer, sitting down beside him.
"As you see," responded Vronsky, knitting his brows, wiping his
mouth, and not looking at the officer.
"So you're not afraid of getting fat?" said the latter, turning a
chair round for the young officer.
"What?" said Vronsky angrily, making a wry face of disgust, and
showing his even teeth.
"You're not afraid of getting fat?"
"Waiter, sherry!" said Vronsky, without replying, and moving the
book to the other side of him, he went on reading.
The plump officer took up the list of wines and turned to the
"You choose what we're to drink," he said, handing him the card,
and looking at him.
"Rhine wine, please," said the young officer, stealing a timid
glance at Vronsky, and trying to pull his scarcely visible
mustache. Seeing that Vronsky did not turn round, the young
officer got up.
"Let's go into the billiard room," he said.
The plump officer rose submissively, and they moved towards the
After a spiritual crisis around the time of his 50th birthday, the Russian literary giant gave up smoking, drinking, eating meat and even the rights to his own work. He became a staunch advocate of pacifism and a vocal supporter of vegetarianism.
Unfortunately for Tolstoy, 19th-century Russia was short on quinoa and Quorn. Instead he became obsessed with eggs, living off a rotating menu of 12 egg dishes including poached eggs with croutons, eggs with Brussels sprouts and beans, and omelette in soup. Sweet pastries and baked items were off-limits – except on birthdays and special occasions when Mrs Tolstoy would prepare a very sour lemon pie.
As I put the finishing touches to the table, I imagine myself bustling around the kitchen at Yasnaya Polyana, being occasionally interrupted by one of the Tolstoys’s 13 children or Tolstoy wandering in wearing his two hats (in his later years he got very sensitive to cold on his head). The recipe book’s main protagonist is Tolstaya herself who, aside from catering to all of her husband’s vegetarian wishes (she remained a staunch meat-eater until just before her death) and putting up with him turning up late to every meal, also transcribed by hand the entirety of War and Peace in its original form – seven times longer than the multi-tome version we know today.
In the morning, I do a little reading on Tolstoy’s dietetics. The benefit of this is twofold: first, I can learn a little bit about why I’m eating what I’m eating, and second, I can fill the time before I’m allowed to have anything at all, which isn’t until mid-afternoon. Here’s what I learn: While most of us know Leo Tolstoy as the writer of books too long to suffer through, few are aware of the contributions the prolific Russian made to the world of dieting. Yes, amid the splendor of nineteenth-century Slavic cuisine — fish eggs, pork jelly, and veal topped with béchamel sauce — Tolstoy had the gall to extoll vegetarianism. Not only did he condemn carnivorous man as inevitably inert and amoral but he said that eating too much at all was a sign of lack of self-discipline and an impious nature.
But what I want to know is: what can rigid beliefs do for one’s waistline? Tolstoy’s manifestos on vegetarianism convinced Gandhi to adopt a plant-based diet, and he eventually got a body so trim he strutted about confidently on the international stage in nothing but a loincloth. Could a staunch belief in the nourishing power of bread, water, and egomania do the same for me?
For a moment, I pine for a few strips of bacon, but then I remember that Tolstoy insisted a man who ate an animal took on its characteristics, and also risked exciting carnal passions. “A man who eats too much,” he wrote in the introduction to The Ethics of Diet, “cannot strive against laziness, while a gluttonous and idle man will never he able to contend with sexual lust.”
Today I am fasting. Tolstoy believed that abstaining from meat eating is a step toward fasting, which is the key to living a Christ-like life and recreating the Kingdom of God here on earth.