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An 18th Century Vegetarian Cookbook, and a Peek into the Diets of the Poor

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on September 11 2014

We are occasionally asked on our Facebook page and our Youtube channel if we could provide more vegetarian recipes. A few have asked if we have run across any information on vegetarianism in the 18th century.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject — not for a second. I will share a few things, however, that I have recently run across.

First, here’s a link to an interesting book by Colin Spencer, called The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, this book seems to be a go-to.

While the history of vegetarianism can be traced back thousands of years, much of its ancient form was founded on religious belief and ritual. Modern vegetarian ideologies are often based on ethical convictions or dietary health concerns. Spencer suggests that modern vegetarianism can trace its roots through the “radical ideas” forged in 17th century Europe.

Where are the Cookbooks?

Walk into any bookstore today, or peruse the shelves on line, and you can find volumes of vegetarian cookbooks. Not so in the 18th Century. That’s not to say that vegetarians didn’t exist then. It’s apparent from the few things I found that there was a segment of society whose dietary choices were determined by their ethical convictions.

Keep in mind that 18th century Europe was experiencing a massive population expansion. Food shortages were commonplace. Much of the wheat, for instance, that was grown in early America was exported to Great Britain to meet the under-supplied demand there for bread. This development resulted in a food vacuum of sorts that was naturally filled by indigenous “Indian corn.”

The old saying goes, “as American as apple pie.” Apple pie wasn’t American. There were scores of recipes for that dish long before Amelia Simmons ever picked up her first spoon. But corn…now that’s American.

I’ve had a few people ask if any vegetarian cookbooks existed in the 18th century. My response has always been, not that I’m aware of. I did, however recently run across a book that I thought might silence the scoffing from my fellow historical foodie enthusiast reenacting meat-eaters. It’s called, The Pythgorean Diet, of Vegetables Only. As I tore the Amazon box open, I thought to myself, “Here it is! A better answer for my vegetarian friends!” I was disappointed, frankly, to discover that it was a translation of a discourse delivered in Florence, Italy, by Antonio Cocchi, in 1743. There were no recipes. It wasn’t a cookbook. It was an argument for the Pythagorean philosophy that can be traced through time for thousands of years.

But wait! There’s still hope! Here’s another book I ran across: Primitive Cookery; or the Kitchen Garden Display’d, written in 1767. I suppose it could classify for the most part as an ovo-lacto vegetarian cookbook, as many of the recipes still include eggs and dairy products. As I began reading this book, however, two things quickly became apparent.

First, this book was written to encourage healthy eating among those who could not afford meat, rather than those who chose not to eat it for ethical reasons. This, in and of itself, is a bit ironic. A cookbook written for the poor. At the bottom of the book’s frontispiece is printed “[Price One Schilling.]” — full-day’s wages (and a pretty steep price) for a common man.

Second, this cookbook, to a greater extent, was a collection of recipes found elsewhere; likely in other cookbooks.

The feature in this book that I found most noteworthy, however, was an a section in the back titled, “A Bill of Fare of Seventy Pretty Little Dishes, Which Will not Stand in Two-Pence Charge.” It’s a list of seventy suggested meals that a poor person might eat. It’s kind of a “missing link” of sorts in period cookbooks. Period cookbooks were written for people of some means. They also tended to assume a certain commonsense among their readers. Some things aren’t mentioned in cookbooks because it’s assumed the reader knew already.

This section in Primitive Cooking offers insight in lowly cuisine — a rarity among period cookbooks. For example, recipe #11:

“Take eggs and beat them well together, and fry them with butter, when done, melt some butter and vinegar and put upon them.”

When it comes to historical reenacting, and specifically juried events, commonsense has occasionally been known to be thrown out with the bath water.

“Do you have documentation…any original recipes for those scrambled eggs you’re eating there for breakfast?”

“Well…no…uh, but…”

As far as vegetarianism goes in the 18th century, sure it existed, but for the masses, I’d venture to guess that it existed by necessity (or the lack thereof) much more commonly than it did by ethic conviction. I say that acknowledging that I have yet to touch upon the topic of Lent — the season leading to Easter when, in addition to other rights and rituals, the consumption of meat was generally forbidden. If you are a vegetarian trying to maintain or incorporate your dietary choices in your historical repertoire, you may wish to approach your research first with Primitive Cookery and then expand it to consider the foods of Lent. There are numerous period cookbooks that address those dietary restrictions.

Primitive Cookery is also an excellent resource for anyone, vegetarian or meat-eater alike, interested in understanding what life in the 18th century was like. Back then, the vast majority of people worked hard to squeak out a living.  This book is an excellent resource — that is, if you can sacrifice a full schilling. Fortunately, you can pick up the paperback version on Amazon for ten or twenty bucks.

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