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.
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)