Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Chilly Christmas Dinner.

It is Christmas in the year 1866. You are a gentleman farmer in England, who espouses vegetarianism, and wish to promote the philosophy amongst your neighbours. You advertise a dinner to be held on Christmas day, and 1000 locals turn up. You feed them:

“ … raw turnips, boiled cabbages, boiled wheat, boiled barley, shelled peas (half a ton of each of these three last-named); oatmeal gruel, with chopped carrots, turnips, and cabbage in it; boiled horse beans, boiled potatoes; salads, made of chopped carrots, turnips, cabbages, parsely &c, over which was poured linseed boiled to a jelly… there were no condiments of any kind,…and all being cold except the potatoes.”

A festival dinner to win the hearts and minds of the local populace over to the vegetarian cause? Hardly. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Mr. William Lawson of Blennerhasset, Cumberland, served on his co-operative farm in the depths of the English winter of 1866 - a cold, condiment-free, Christmas-puddingless Christmas dinner. The boiled linseed dressing - sans vinegar, sans salt, sans everything that might have made it taste of something other than varnish left over from painting the barn doors – must only have served to emphasise the lack of gravy and brandy sauce. Perhaps at the very least it gave the wooden bowls a nice Christmasy gleam. The English are stoic, but not that stoic. It goes without saying that “the beef-eating peasantry … did not sit down with much relish to their vegetarian fare”, and it seems doubtful that any guests signed up for the cause on the day. It was said that even the pigs next day refused the banquet remains.

It is hardly surprising that the dinner was not a success. William Lawson had set himself an almost impossible challenge. Not only was he trying to promote a vegetarian diet, it was to cost less than a penny a head and be “a truly national meal”, with all ingredients of British origin. In the middle of winter, this meant that the only vegetables available were those that could withstand storage, and spices and other exotic ingredients were out because most were from foreign parts, and in any case he belonged to “the most rigid sect of the vegetarian school”, which prohibited the use of all condiments, including salt and sugar.

The dinner was extraordinarily austere even for the generally condiment-poor and teetotal vegetarian events of the era. It was widely (and mockingly) described in the press of the day, and the wonder is that it did not kill the fledgling vegetarian movement stone dead! As we know however, vegetarianism not only survived, but thrived, and the menu of that dinner in 1866 is a reminder of just how far vegetarian cuisine has come in the last 140 years.

The less-rigid sect of the vegetarian school were quite willing to use condiments and to serve hot food of course, as contemporary cookery books demonstrate. For the Recipe of the Day I give you a hot potato dish from The Principles And Practice of Vegetarian Cookery, by John Smith, published in 1860.

Potato Hash.
To five pounds of potatoes pared and sliced as for a pie, add one quart of water, a table-spoonful of oatmeal, a little salt and pepper, also two ounces of butter, or three quarters of a pint of milk; boil the whole, shaking the pan frequently; add chopped parsley and sweet leeks, and let the whole stew till tender, stirring it occasionally. Onions and sage chopped and stewed with potatoes, make also a good hash; and pease meal may be substituted for the oatmeal.

Quotation for the Day.

Christmas? Christmas means dinner, dinner means death! Death means carnage; Christmas means carnage!
Ferdinand the Duck, in the film 'Babe' (1995)


Anne said...

Brilliant, raw turnips and linseed jelly, who could resist?!

Vegetarian events weren't always that bad though. In 1851 The Times had published an article about a gathering of the Vegetarian Society, saying that the ‘savoury pies, bread and parsley fritters, moulded ground rice, blancmange, cheesecakes, and fruit’ were ‘consumed with an evident relish by the company.’ Also, the writer commented that ‘the mode of life they have adopted seems to do them much good.’

However, you're right to say that things have been improving for vegetarians ever since, and long may it continue!

Lidian said...

I will be cooking Christmas dinner for two and three-quarters vegetarians (I am the three-quarters and my teenage daughters are the two) plus an English spouse who adores turkey and all that follows in its delicious gravy-laden wake. I am going to tell them about Mr. Lawson's dinner, which I think they would like provided it had included, at least, roast potatoes, stuffing, gingerbread and trifle.

What did the other Lawsons think of this? Or was Mr. L on his own with his boiled linseed dressing?

Anonymous said...

Ugh, ugh ugh bleah. I wonder how he might have fared if, first, he had had a scholarly friend who explained to him that his own countrymen had never been so strict even when they kept fast days for a third of the year, and, second, if he hadn't been so determined to take the last scrap of happiness out of the food. Perhaps something like this:

Frumenty prepared with almond milk, cabbage braised briefly with carrots and dill (a modern recipe, but dead boiled cabbage makes me shudder), barley cooked in stock made from mushrooms picked earlier that year and dried, turnips done with honey and spices Old Russian fashion, thick pease porridge with plenty of seasoning, flummery au maigre, "horse beans" with a sharp sauce (or just leave them out because one's guests should not be fed like livestock), hot mealy potatoes, winter salads with proper dressings, plenty of crusty bread, bowls of nuts to crack, mulled cider, and mulled ale.

Jenny Islander

Word verification: shporel. A pastry full of all the good things this killjoy left out of Christmas dinner.