Everyone knows Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers).
But after reading about his background and accomplishments, I wanted to know…how did he become the man he was?
And then I found a copy of one of his letters listing ten books that influenced him.
Here’s the list.
You can read my first blog here.
As usual, I have theories on the reason why a cookbook made the list of books that influenced Rogers. Let’s start with his childhood. Fred Rogers was not always as slim as we are used to seeing. In fact, he was overweight—and because of that he was teased and bullied. Kids used to chase him and call him “fat Freddie”.
Rogers made a decision that he was not going to be that person anymore…and he never was again. Obviously, food took a different meaning in his life.
As an adult, Roger’s worked to keep his weight exactly 143 pounds. Why is that number interesting? Because Rogers liked this number…a lot. He had it sewn into the back of his sweaters and liked to call it a special code:
“I” has 1 letter.
“love” has 4 letters.
“you” has 3 letters.
Can you imagine the dedication to staying the exact same weight? Everyday he woke at 5am, read the Bible and then swam for an hour…oh, he did one other thing that helped maintain his weight…
He became a vegetarian.
The introduction of the book gave me some clues. It starts:
About ten years ago the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, chaired by George McGovern, issued a report on the dietary status of America. The report suggested that Americans cut back on their consumption of animal fats, refined carbohydrates, and salt.
What follows is a history of the food industry starting with Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham (inventor of the graham cracker), the discovery of vitamins in 1911, the establishment of the Basic Four Food groups in 1956 and the rise of health foods in the 1970’s (from a $150 million dollar industry to $2.2 billion dollars of gross sales). He describes how "consumers now seemed to be truly concerned about the ingredients that were finding their way into our food supply" It concludes, as you’d imagine, with an argument on the superiority of the vegetarian diet. It’s pretty convincing.
So, it’s possible that Rogers got swept away with the tide of interest in a healthier diet and embraced a vegetarian lifestyle like thousands of others.
But I think it went beyond that. When asked to explain why he was a vegetarian he explained, “I want to be a vehicle for God, to spend his message of love and peace.” He believed in treating animals non-violently and thought we should have empathy for the ‘lesser creatures’.
As I’d come to expect, his love for children likely influenced his decision too. He worried that children would be concerned about seeing an animal and later associating it with a meal.
Why this book?
The history of this book (found on Wiki) gave me some clues.
Paul Obis, the founder of Vegetarian Times, wrote an article titled “Being a Vegetarian is Never Having to Say You’re Sorry—to a Cow”. When he was unsuccessful in selling the article, he turned it into a newsletter. The newsletter grew into a magazine and despite a somewhat turbulent history, the readership grew to over 250,000 people. This was a new way of looking at the American diet and it’s popularity was on the rise. Vegetarian Times was, by default, the main source of information since the magazine had no competition on this topic in the 1980’s.
During those rocky times I mentioned, guess who stepped up to provide some financial backing? That’s right. As I discovered, it wasn’t unusual for Rogers to support individuals or businesses that he believed in. And by all accounts, he was passionate about this topic.
But let me tell you a little more about the book (which is a collection of recipes from the magazine). It has four pages of acknowledgments- crediting the original source of the recipes. I found that quite interesting since you just don’t see that anymore. Just take moment and look up a Chocolate Lasagna recipe and you will find dozens of webpages without any idea where the recipe originated. (and then make it because it’s pretty yummy)
I used to have recipe cards with titles like Grandma’s Upside Down Pineapple Cake, but this list was far better. Let me tell you some of the more interesting contributors:
The Cold Bean Salad came from The Cookbook for People who Love Animals.
The Un-Salmon loaf came from Eat for Strength and Not for Drunkenness.
The Vegetarian Stew came from Eating to Win.
A Carob Icing recipe was taken from XXIII World Vegetarian Congress Cook Book.
Several recipes featuring pumpkin including Tofu Pumpkin Pie (I shuddered a little) came from The Soy of Cooking: A Tofu and Tempeh Recipe Book. As someone who owns The Joy of Cooking…I got the joke.
I’m going to try some of the recipes but not all of them. There’s a whole section devoted to carob desserts. I’ve always consider carob (a chocolate substitute) a terrible, regrettable phase in the history of cooking. But back to the topic…
Finally, I believe that Fred Rogers embraced vegetarianism as a way of honoring God. I listened to a sermon titled “Body by God” by Ed Young at Fellowship Church years ago. A luxury car was used as a prop on the stage and the gist of the message was that you don’t put cheap gas in an expensive car. It was a great sermon and brought home a really important fact.
We should be eating healthy food to take care of the body that has been given to us.
I can’t confirm that Rogers actually believed that…but it fits with the way he thought…so I’m going with it.
The fifth book is The Angry Book and I’m having a hard time thinking about Fred Rogers and the topic of anger…
PS. Fred Roger’s sweater and tennis shoes became an image that was both familiar and comforting to viewers but he had a very specific reason for wearing those shoes. As one website said…his “sneakers were for sneaking”.
Most of the puppets in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood were performed by Rogers himself and he found that canvas shoes were quieter for the backstage work necessary in maneuvering without making a sound.