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In January 1908, Mahatma Gandhi was sent to jail for defying South Africa’s racist laws. From behind bars, he launched a protest campaign, but not one aimed at those laws. Rather, the focus of his campaign was something that might seem less urgent, perhaps even trivial—the absence of ghee in the prison diet.

“From time immemorial," Gandhi wrote, “ghee has been considered to be the complement of rice." Indian prisoners who were vegetarian were served beans. “Whilst beans are an admirable substitute for meat," Gandhi declared, “they are no substitute for ghee." A South African newspaper described the food offered to Indian prisoners as “infamously unjust" and went so far as to compare it to torture.

But why did Gandhi direct attention to matters of diet when so many other forms of injustice cried out for attention? Was ghee really that important?

What makes this protest especially revealing is that Gandhi would later eliminate ghee from his diet. In jail, he began to rethink his attachment to particular foods. Staples of his diet came to seem like luxuries, and he criticized his fellow prisoners for their “incessant grumbling about food".

It wasn’t that they should stop caring about their diet. Gandhi had long been obsessed with food, and those obsessions would last the rest of his life. He wanted his fellow prisoners to think more—not less—about what they ate. But he wanted them to rethink which food items were truly essential. Ghee, he came to believe, was not one of them.

When I began researching Gandhi’s diet, I was immediately impressed by how he anticipated many of today’s dietary preoccupations—from veganism to raw food to fasting. He cut salt and sugar from his diet; made his own almond milk, and hunted for wild leafy greens. Gandhi seemed more like a trend-savvy foody than the apostle of non-violence.

As I studied the history of Gandhi’s relationship with food, I realized that his diet could not be separated from his politics.

That is the first lesson of Gandhi’s evolving views on ghee: Food is always political. His demand for ghee and his later rejection of ghee were both political acts, both manifestations of his desire to align his diet with his vision for a better world.

That was easier said than done. Consider one of the pillars of Gandhi’s diet, his vegetarianism. Gandhi was born into a vegetarian family. As a young man, he secretly tried a few bites of goat meat. That night, he had a nightmare. “Every time I dropped off to sleep," Gandhi later recalled, “it would seem as though a live goat were bleating inside me, and I would jump up full of remorse."

His experiment with meat-eating did not last. But it was not until he went to London to study law that Gandhi truly embraced vegetarianism. He joined the London Vegetarian Society, and became an ardent advocate of a “meatless" diet. Vegetarianism would remain one of Gandhi’s primary commitments through his life, one of the pillars of his diet and his politics. But it was not enough to avoid meat.

As his commitment to vegetarianism deepened, Gandhi became convinced that he should give up dairy as well. For decades, he tried to find a vegan equivalent to milk. He made his own almond milk, but had a hard time digesting it. He vowed to never consume milk.

Reluctantly, however, he decided that his vow would not include goat’s milk, which became so essential to his diet that when he was arrested in 1930, the colonial government paraded before reporters “a dozen wooly animals of the purest strain, purchased by His Majesty’s government to supply the prisoner with his favourite beverage: goat’s milk".

It was a blatant mistake to describe goat’s milk as Gandhi’s “favourite beverage". Gandhi consumed goat’s milk with deep regret and a haunting sense that he had failed to live up to his own ideals. His opposition to sweets similarly challenged his ability to put his beliefs into practice. As a young man, he loved sweets. His favourites included jalebi and halva.

With time, however, he came to believe that indulging a sweet tooth weakened self control and distracted him from more important political and spiritual pursuits. Chocolate, in particular, earned Gandhi’s ire.

Not only did chocolate inspire hedonism; it was also produced under slave-like labour conditions. Long before the fair trade movement, Gandhi grappled with the moral implications of consumption chains. It was the suffering of cocoa workers, as well as the spiritual dangers of excessive flavour, that drove Gandhi to declare: “I see death in chocolates."

Yet, even later in life, his aversion to sweets was not absolute. When a woman met him at a train station with “rice, coconut and a leaf-bowl of sugar candy in her hands", he did not chastise her for the candy. He wrote an editorial praising her generosity.

His own diet maintained a healthy dose of a particular kind of sweet: fruit. Gandhi loved nearly all fruits. He had a special taste for “luscious mangoes". His love for fruit was not uncomplicated.

After indulging too many mangoes, he declared: “Mango is a cursed fruit... We must get used to not treating it with so much affection." Yet mangoes remained a regular feature of his diet, along with bananas, oranges, limes, grapes and other fruits.

From milk to chocolate to mangoes, Gandhi struggled with the ethical implications of his diet. Those struggles are not easily resolved. As Gandhi’s relationship with ghee makes clear, our relationship to food is a journey that calls for continual growth and a humble willingness to change. Many of Gandhi’s dietary principles have been embraced by nutritionists, chefs and various other food experts. He lived the advice of author Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Gandhi’s diet connected his politics, his ethics, and his religious and spiritual beliefs. But forging those connections was a lifelong process, and one that entailed continually rethinking his dietary practices and beliefs. Nothing reveals Gandhi’s willingness to change—and change again—more than his relationship with ghee.

First he praised it as essential to his diet. Then he deemed it unnecessary. Then he rejected it when he turned towards veganism. Finally, later in life, he defended it, at least in opposition to what was then called “vegetable ghee" and, today, more often known as margarine. “Though I yield to none in my enthusiasm for vegetarianism," Gandhi wrote, “I could never bring myself to use the chemically doctored vegetable product which is generally palmed off on the gullible public as ghee."

The way in which margarine was “chemically treated" made it “injurious to health" and “worthless as a food". Gandhi declared that “vegetable ghee deserves only to be boycotted at all cost".

Importantly, it was not processing per se but industrial or chemical processing that Gandhi opposed.

He encouraged his readers to produce their own chemical-free margarine. “Everyone in India," he wrote, “can prepare for himself good vegetable ghee from an undried coconut which can be procured cheap in any bazaar."

From goat’s milk to ghee, Gandhi’s dietary interests, questions and practices changed dramatically throughout his life. The ascetic Mahatma who ate little, fasted often and rejected the pleasures of the palette was born in a South African jail. And he just kept changing in the years ahead. Here is the second lesson of Gandhi’s relationship with ghee: Our diets must keep changing as we change, and as the world around us changes.

I began my research on Gandhi’s diet with the hope that I would learn lessons I could apply in my own kitchen—and I have. But more important than how much salt I put on roasted sweet potatoes or whether I cook oats in almond milk or soya milk is whether I can emulate the deep curiosity and humility that Gandhi modelled in his approach to food. Gandhi’s diet was not perfect.

Indeed, the more I delved into my research, the more complex Gandhi’s diet became, and the more I came to see the dangers of his dietary obsessions.

As we recognize the 150th anniversary of his birth, we have the opportunity to follow Gandhi in learning from his mistakes and contradictions, as well as from the enduring principles he applied to his diet.

His imperfections and struggles are as revealing as his successes; indeed, they cannot be separated from his successes. Whether or not we eat ghee or drink goat’s milk or feast on “luscious mangoes", the real question is how we can reconcile what we eat and how we live with our deepest values.

Nico Slate is professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind and Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India.

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