The history cook: vegetarian cookery

Vegetarian Cookery, by A Lady, 1867, London

For decades they were dismissed as cranks and puritans; people who made life difficult when you invited them for dinner. Now vegetarians gather in number on the culinary landscape, and even the most committed carnivore would concede the virtues of the meat-free life: it makes for a healthy diet, draws on natural resources efficiently and is, by abstention, kind to animals.

But 150 years ago, Britain’s first vegetarian society went further in its claims. In the introduction to the 1867 book Vegetarian Cookery (authored by a mysterious “A Lady”), the “Rev. Jas. Simpson” suggested vegetarianism was “favourable to health, peace and happiness, and has a tendency to abolish everything that makes us miserable in this world”.

Simpson, a member of the Bible Christian Church, was involved in the establishment of the (still surviving) Vegetarian Society in 1847. He was joined by a few hundred other men and women, inspired by religious beliefs, or an interest in utopian experiments and nutritional reforms.

But to convince others that vegetarianism was the true path to utopia was a struggle. This was a time when eating meat was regarded as essential to health. It was also a mark of wealth and, moreover, beef was seen as a symbol of Britishness. “We are not surprised … that the Vegetarian system, when first presented to the attention of a flesh-consuming community, should be considered unworthy of serious attention,” Simpson wrote.

After setting out its agenda, Vegetarian Cookery follows up with 757 recipes as uncomplicated as they are uninspiring. Dishes that in most contemporary cookery books would play a supporting role, here take centre stage. Omelettes made with tapioca, or eggs with white sauce and parsley, stand in for the potted ham or roast beef of more usual Victorian middle-class fare.

Ottolenghi this is not: herbs, seasonings and spices are mostly absent. Even the most generous omnivore is unlikely to get excited about “Turnip and Sago Soup” or “Baked Rice Omelette”. And pity the guest at a veggie dinner with a menu of pea soup, macaroni omelette, baked onions, baked beetroot, new potatoes, green peas, stewed fruit, sago and gooseberry pie. There are some pleasing recipes, particularly puddings, but overall there is very little here that couldn’t be improved by a few slices of bacon.

Pleasure, however, was not the primary purpose of Vegetarian Cookery. That would be the arguments laid out by Simpson in his 40-page introduction. Starting with health, he details evidence from the Liebig School in Germany, the leading nutritional laboratory of the day, to disprove the notion that “the nutritive particles in the vegetable kingdom were inferior, and of different composition to [those] derived from … animals”.

Simpson also ratchets up the economic arguments, with tables outlining the relative costs and nutritional benefits of various ingredients. Lentils, Simpson says, contain 33 per cent of the “flesh-forming principle”. The cost of supplying 100lb of flesh to the body with lentils is £2, 8s, 8d; achieving the same result from butcher’s meat would cost £11, 12s, 6½d.

Anyone left unmoved by Simpson’s nutritional or economic logic might be swayed by his account of the brutality and filth of Victorian meat production. A government inquiry in 1863 had found that more than a fifth of meat sold was not fit for human consumption and, as Simpson relates, meat was often procured “from the bodies of animals in nearly all states of disease”.

Finally, Simpson turns to the question of sin. While he acknowledges that “vegetarians believe that man’s best and most natural food must be derived from the Vegetable Kingdom,” they “leave untouched the freedom of individuals” because, “the true spirit of Vegetarianism is benevolence” – a surprisingly undogmatic appeal to our better nature that has survived the past 150 years rather well.

Vegetarian Cookery, however, fails in one important regard: it lacks what has proved to be the most effective tool for recruiting people to vegetarianism – delicious, inventive food.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘Vegetarian Cookery’ by kind permission of the British Library collection

Cucumber Pie

One cucumber

Two ounces of onion and butter

Pare and cut a large cucumber in pieces; take out the seeds, salt it well, and drain it in a coarse sieve two hours; season with pepper and a little more salt, if required; add the onion, cut small, add a little butter; cover with paste, and bake in a moderately hot oven. A little tapioca may be added.

Savoury Pie

Six ounces of breadcrumbs

Half an ounce of chopped onions

Four eggs

Moisten the bread with four tablespoonfuls of cold water; add the eggs, well beaten; season with pepper and salt; mix altogether; tie in a cloth, and boil it three-quarters of an hour; when cold, cut it in small square pieces; also two or three boiled eggs; add one ounce tapioca (previously steeped in a teacupful of cold water ten minutes), a little more seasoning, and two ounces of butter, cut in small pieces; cover with paste and bake it.

A few mushrooms may be added.

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