Being a vegetarian historian

Ironically enough it was a Cowherd that was responsible for the instigation of the vegetarian movement. Of course, the idea of not eating meat for reasons financial, religious or moral stretches back as far as classical antiquity in written records and probably as far back as people have had any level of food choice beyond records. In Britain, however, people had always been noted for their love of flesh filled food and a meat free diet was extremely unusual until a much more recent time.

The political and religious radicalism of the 1600s that birthed the English Revolution and a brief end to monarchy would also give us the first significant British advocates of a vegetable diet, most notably the merchant Thomas Tryon. Tryon was convinced that mankind’s natural state was as a pacifist, animal-loving individual and he believed in a vegetable diet as part of an ascetic, frugal existence. In a variety of pamphlets and treatises through the 1680s and 90s, Tryon argued that a diet of rich foods would make people emotionally and spiritually poorer, saying: “The momentary pleasures of the Throat-Custom, vanity, &c., do ensnare and entice most people to exceed the bounds of necessity or convenience; and many fail through a false opinion or misunderstanding of nature – childishly imagining that the richer the food is, and the more they can cram into their bellies, the more they shall be strengthened thereby. But experience shews to the contrary; for are not such people as accustom themselves to the richest foods, and most cordial drinks, generally the most infirm and diseased?

Tryon, though, remained something of a lone voice in favour of a vegetable diet in the British culinary discourse until over a hundred years later and a period of even greater social, political, artistic and intellectual upheaval. In what was probably the most interesting era of European history, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the political changes wrought in the wake of the French Revolution swept across the continent and into Britain and with them came vegetarianism, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned Cowherd: the Reverend William Cowherd that is.

CowherdModern vegetarianism is a product of this era. Indeed etymologically the term “vegetarian” did not exist in Cowherd’s time, but appeared, coined by his followers, at the start of the Victorian era around 1835-45. In 1847 these followers formed the Vegetarian Society that continues to exist and promote the cause of non-meat eating to this day, accounting the likes of celebrity vegetarian activists Paul, Linda and Stella McCartney amongst his noted past and current members. This era was the start of ethically motivated vegetarianism as the concept is understood today and it was during the time of Cowherd and his successors that Britain went from being a nation best known for loving meat, to being the main home for vegetarians in the western world.

As I’ve mentioned before, the last eight months of this blog have been heavily carnivorous and the gluttonous festive period has done little to combat that. The New Year, on the other hand, is a time for dieting and detox after all that indulgent food and drink. So, I’ve decided to take a lettuce leaf out of Tryon and Cowherd’s book and use the first month of 2014 to talk vegetarianism and cook vegetarian foods, starting with that first significant era of British vegetarianism 200 years ago.

One of Britain’s first outspoken vegetarian advocates was the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, of Ozymandias fame. In 1813 at the age of 21 Shelley wrote the “philosophical poem” Queen Mab. Here Shelley puts forward his vision for a utopia in which animals are not killed and eaten for their meat and equates eating meat with a violation of the natural order of things:

And man, once fleeting o’er the transient scene
Swift as an unremembered vision, stands
Immortal upon earth; no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame,
All evil passions and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.”

ShelleyTo accompany the poem and further to put forward his position on the subject, Shelley added a series of notes in the pamphlet A Vindication of Natural Diet. Here Shelley lays the blame for man’s meaty diet at the feet of the titan Prometheus whose theft of fire, Shelley asserts, applied to culinary purposes enabled: “an expedient for screening from his disgust the horrors of the shambles. From this moment his vitals were devoured by the vulture of disease. It consumed his being in every shape of its loathsome and infinite variety, inducing the soul-quelling sinkings of premature and violent death. All vice arose from the ruin of healthful innocence”. Shelley’s future second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who he met around this time, would make her Modern Prometheus  Frankenstein, a character with more than a hint of Percy about him, create his own Adam, a creature that existed on a diet of solely vegetables, nuts and grains, endorsing and mirroring her husband’s view of Prometheus and the natural state of vegetarianism.

Shelley argues that the “advantage of a reform in diet” would be to make someone fitter, healthier and livelier as well as more morally sound, less inclined to acts of anger or violence. “Who will assert, that had the populace of Paris drank at the pure source of the Seine, and satisfied their hunger at the ever-furnished table of vegetable nature, that they would have lent their brutal suffrage to the proscription-list of Robespierre?” he asks, before concluding that the most important thing is to: “NEVER TAKE ANY SUBSTANCE INTO THE STOMACH THAT ONCE HAD LIFE”.

Shelley may have been big on the veggie polemic, but further north was where the vegetarian movement really gathered pace thanks to Cowherd and his slightly oddly named “Beefsteak Chapel” in Salford. Cowherd was a member of the radical mystics of Swedenborgian New Church (like American tree planting folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who, if you’ll remember, thought he’d be rewarded for his efforts with two wives in the afterlife), but the strength of his anti-meat convictions caused him to fall out with them and form his own stridently vegetarian church, The Bible Christian Church in 1809. Cowherd died in 1816, but his message had already begun to spread and the Manchester area became the home of British vegetarianism. By the Victorian period there were more vegetarian eateries in Greater Manchester than there are today!

BrothertonIn 1817 two of the Bible Christian Church ministers and 39 of the congregation left for America and introduced the vegetarian movement there. Back in Salford, Cowherd’s ministry was taken up by Joseph Brotherton. It was a difficult time for the Manchester working classes with high levels of famine and unemployment in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. All of this led to the anti-poverty activism that would result in the outrage of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. In this context, Brotherton and the Bible Christian Church became increasingly active in local politics, establishing a fund to support victims of the massacre and helping found schools and a lending library.

As a Non-conformist Liberal in support of reform, Brotherton was a member of The Little Circle, a group of reformers including Thomas Potter, who would be Manchester’s first mayor, and John Edward Taylor, founder of The Manchester Guardian. The group raised a petition against the current political system of power residing in “rotten boroughs” and no representation for major industrial centres like Salford. The result of this was the 1832 Reform Act, following which Brotherton became the first MP for Salford.

Food in general, and vegetarianism in particular, were a cornerstone of Brotherton’s political position and work with the impoverished and unemployed. He set up vegetable soup kitchens for the poor and campaigned to get them eating their greens. Even the cheapest offal was a greater expense than living meat free, Brotherton sought to move people beyond the traditional feeling that they had to have meat, in order to make their money go that bit further. In the current time of austerity it’s a message that we could probably learn to listen to once more.

The whole Brotherton family were keen to practice what they preached with regards to the vegetarian diet. In 1806 he had married Martha, the sister of a partner in his family’s cotton mill, William Harvey. Martha would demonstrate her commitment to the cause by penning a recipe book in 1812, the first vegetarian cookbook in British history: A New System of Vegetable Cookery. (Harvey, for his part, would go on to be the President of the Vegetarian Society in 1859, succeeding his son-in-law James Simpson). It is from Martha’s book, then, that this week’s recipes come, in tribute to those early vegetarians.

Vegetarian CookeryVegetable Cookery is, it turns out, a difficult book to find online, either in its entirety or even as recipe extracts, which seemed to put an end to my desire to cook some of the earliest veggie recipes. Fortunately, after the vegetarian movement really got going and the term “vegetarian” was coined, the book was republished under the title of Vegetarian Cookery in 1867. James Simpson, Martha’s nephew-in-law and the sometime president of the Vegetarian Society, wrote the introduction and both are described as “the late..”, so perhaps their deaths were responsible for the Society reprinting the book.

Vegetarians in this day and age are often frustrated, especially in other parts of the world, that the veggie option often ends up being omelette and chips. Those people are likely to be disappointed by what Martha Brotherton has to offer. There are 757 recipes in the book and an enormous amount of them are omelettes. And if you think that means there’s not a lot on offer here for vegans, you’d be wrong. Brotherton offers such options as a “Baked Rice Omelet” and similar egg-free options. One of these is described as “Omelet Without Eggs or Butter” and its recipe runs as follows:

“One pound of bread crumbs, half a pound of onions, quarter of a pound of macaroni, three ounces of chopped parsley, one table-spoonful of tapioca, two table-spoonfuls of salad oil, and one tea-spoonful of baking powder.

Boil the macaroni in water, adding a little salt; or cook it in the oven with plenty of water, covered with a plate, till tender, but not soft; drain the water from it, and, when cool, cut it in small pieces; boil the tapioca in a quarter of a pint of water five or six minutes; mix it with the onions, boiled a little and chopped, the breadcrumbs, parsley, and baking powder; season with pepper and salt. Put the oil in a dish, then a layer of the mixture and the macaroni alternately, having three layers of the mixture and two of macaroni; bake in a moderately hot oven, and turn it over on a hot, flat dish.”

This seemed pretty weird, and yet strongly representative of the content of Brotherton’s book, that I had to have a go at making it. To go with the “omelet”, I wanted something that seemed a little safer. Brotherton’s recipe for Potato Salad is not too far removed from the sort of thing that we would have today. Here is how it’s written:

Potato Salad“Cut cold boiled potatoes in rather thin slices; put them into a salad bowl, with a tea-spoonful of chopped parsley, half a teaspoonful of eschalots cut very fine, two table-spoonfuls of oil, two of cream, and two of vinegar; season with a little pepper and salt, and toss all carefully together without breaking the potatoes.”

This mix of cold boiled potato, herbs and a cream, oil and vinegar dressing isn’t much different from if you wanted to make a potato salad today and, sure enough, it was very easy to prepare and tasted pretty reasonable. The omelette, however, was like nothing I’ve ever eaten before.

Before going any further, it’s worth just taking a closer look at the ingredients in that omelette. First of all: tapioca. The starch extracted from cassava root, tapioca is a thickening agent hardly ever used these days, except perhaps for its gluten free qualities (much like the xanthan gum from my A to Z). In Britain much its most common use has always been in the slimily unpleasant tapioca pudding. Unfortunately, this usage is so much the only thing that our local supermarket could think for tapioca that it only exists in premade tins of pudding. In order to make the recipe approximate Brotherton’s, I mixed a little of this with the hot water to make up a quarter of a pint.

PastaSecondly: macaroni. These days macaroni is almost exclusively thought of in the context of that American staple macaroni cheese and, within that particular dish, as having a distinctive curved tube shape. In actual fact, though, macaroni does not, like spaghetti or fusilli, describe a pasta shape, but simply refers to a pasta made from durum wheat, a dry pasta without eggs (hence its use in the egg-less omelette). In Brotherton’s time “macaroni” was likely used to mean any type of pasta (also as slang for a preening fop, as in the song Yankee Doodle). Reading Brotherton’s suggestion to boil the macaroni and then cut it into small pieces, I assumed that she probably meant a long, flat pasta, such as we would call a tagliatelle. So I boiled up a pot of durum wheat tagliatelle and chopped this into small pieces.

Egg-less OmeletteIt felt a very strange process mixing the tapioca in with some boiled chopped onion and breadcrumbs. It was honestly like nothing I had ever cooked before and it became no less odd layering this breadcrumb mix and the pieces of pasta in the pan and baking the resulting mix. The eventual product looked kind of strange, but also recognisably like an omelette.

Flavour-wise Martha Brotherton’s 200 year old vegan omelette wasn’t half as bad as I might have expected. It was definitely an omelette even without the eggs and, like the potatoes, was quite reasonable. The meal as a whole was hugely stodgy. I’m sure it would do well to fill you up far more cheaply than a meat dinner, but perhaps that was more at the forefront of a vegetarian’s mind 200 years ago than it is today.

More than anything, though, the issue with this dinner wasn’t in taste but appearance. If we were to imagine “the vegetable diet” we would probably assume something full of fresh, verdant colour, but this dish was nothing but flavours of brown. Only the chopped parsley provided an element of green and this was little off putting and made the dish feel rather bland than otherwise. Brotherton’s book does include recipes with beans or cucumbers and, looking at the whole, I should probably have gone with one of those. The sheer amount of pastry and omelettes in Vegetable Cookery does, however, imply that the Brotherton’s diet was indeed in shades of brown and beige.

Thus, although it was a solid and filling meal for a one off occasion, it would be very easy to get tired of such a diet very quickly. I can well see why 19th century vegetarianism was only popular in certain pockets and certain people. For next week I’m going to have to go with something much more colourful and flavoursome if I’m going to convince myself of the merits of a reform in diet.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: Being a vegan in the Georgian period must have been an interesting choice. Certainly the people making that choice were of a class who could afford meaty and dairy and chose not to – in an era when most people lived off bread and ale it’s an interesting decision to eschew meat and dairy and yet not eat like the poor either. 

Weirdly, this was recognisably an omelette (despite no omelette I’ve ever encountered containing pasta), and if I hadn’t been told otherwise I would have assumed it had egg in. Omelettes have had a lot of flack over the years as the default option for veggies abroad. They’re nice, but… Yeah, if I was a Georgian vegan, I wouldn’t be eating this that often. Maybe a nice salad instead.

4 thoughts on “A Reform in Diet

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