A Case for Kale: Vegetarianism in Victorian England

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With 2018 finally here, it's resolution time! Over 1/3 of Americans have resolved to eat healthier this year and, for many, that means adopting a more plant-forward diet. From buffalo fried cauliflower to tempeh fish and chips, it's clear that vegetarian and vegan diets are on the rise. But a meat-free lifestyle is no passing fad. From the ancient Greek Pythagoras to George Bernard Shaw, the rise of the vegetarian movement has been thousands of years in the making. But who were some of these early meat-free adopters? We travel back to 1848 Manchester to the birth of the first-ever English Vegetarian Society. We'll try our hand at some Victorian vegetarian dishes and learn the surprising relationship between the meat-free diet and important social issues throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from child labor laws to the women's suffrage movement. Grab a kale smoothie & join us on an adventure in Victorian vegetarian dining.  

Written & Produced by Laura Carlson

Technical Direction by Mike Portt

A 21st Century Take on Some 19th Century Vegetarian Recipes

As part of our research on early Victorian vegetarian cooking, we looked to Martha Brotherton's popular Vegetable Cookery (available in its entirety online here), first published in 1812 and republished several times in the early 19th century. Wife of Joseph Brotherton, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Manchester Vegetarian Society around the 1850s, Martha and her husband co-authored this early cookbook.

At 400 pages, it's a dense read, but it provides some wonderful clues about some popular meat-free preparations in early 19th century Manchester. Salads, for example, barely appear. But you can find any  number of recipes for omelettes, vegetable and fruit fritters, as well as pies, tarts, and puddings.

For our experiment into Victorian Vegetarianism we sampled Martha's carrot fritters, pea soup, and rice flummery. 

Martha Brotherton's Rice Flummery (which unfortunately doesn't photograph well), Photo by Mike Portt

Martha Brotherton's Rice Flummery (which unfortunately doesn't photograph well), Photo by Mike Portt

Flummery & Fiddlesticks!

Flummery was a popular form of custard in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Believed to be related to posset (which itself has medieval origins), recipes for flummery usually involved milk, cream, sugar, and additional ingredients. In Martha Brotherton's 19th century Vegetable Cookery, there is an entire section dedicated to "Creams & Flummeries" including recipes for French Flummery, Melon Flummery, Green Flummery, and Rice Flummery, the recipe for which you can find below.


Pea Soup, anyone?

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Vegetable Cookery includes not one but dozens of recipes for pea soup, including the one we made at home, dubiously called "Grey Pea Soup". This particular recipe calls for peas, onions, celery, along with some crusty bread to be boiled for hours and then strained, served over fried onions and sage. We were dubious, but it made a surprisingly hearty soup! And Martha wasn't lying- the eventual colour was a disturbing shade of grey... 

Here's the recipe, taken from Brotherton. We halved it, and it easily fed 2 people (with leftovers!):

Grey Pea Soup

To five quarts of water, put two of peas, three large onions, two heads of celery, some crust of bread, a little thyme, and some sage, and let it boil three hours and then strain it through a cloth, thicken with flour and butter, give it another boil, have ready some fried onions and sage rubbed fine. Salt and pepper and pour the soup over them and serve it up.


The Original Graham Bread: Smore Lovers, Beware!

To help round out our Victorian vegetarian meal, we decided to make an iconic recipe from another major proponent of a meat-free lifestyle in the 19th century. Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister, preached throughout the United States on the benefits of an ascetic, simple diet. Along with supporting a vegetarian and "temperate" (i.e. no alcohol) lifestyle, he also recommended a form of what we might call whole wheat bread, using flour that retained the wheat bran and germ, as the basis for a healthy lifestyle.

This specially milled flour, eventually known as "graham flour", was an iconic ingredient in the bread and soon Graham's followers (known as Grahamites) were known for this unusual bread. Although the Grahamite movement never became hugely popular in the States, graham flour as well as graham bread eventually influenced another major dietary reformer, John Harvey Kellogg (famous for his eventual association with the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the invention of corn flakes).

Although we couldn't find any graham flour in our local stores (although some places do still make it), you can approximate Graham's famous flour by adding in wheat germ and/or wheat bran to normal white flour. 

Here's our version, slightly adapted from a version made by Smithsonian Food History's Cooking Up History (original recipe available here). 

Graham Bread

Makes 1 Loaf


Pinch of Active Dry Yeast (or 1 packet)

9 oz of lukewarm water (usually between 80-90 degrees F)

1.5 oz "fancy" molasses

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

12 oz white flour

6 oz wheat germ

1/4 teaspoon salt


Whisk together the yeast, molasses, water, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Let stand for 1 minute.

Combine the white flour and wheat germ and place on a clean dry surface. Sprinkle the salt over the flour.

Make a large well in the center of the flour.

Pour the wet mixture into the center of the well. Using a wooden spoon, gradually incorporate the flour into the wet ingredients, starting with the flour around the inner walls of the well closest to the wet ingredients.

Slowly incorporate the flour and wheat germ into the wet mixture. This will form a sticky mass, so continue gradually adding the rest of the flour to form a dough that is neither sticky nor crumbly. This will require approximately 10 minutes of kneading.

Let the dough rest for 20 minutes in a warm (not hot) place to thoroughly hydrate.

Shape the dough into a loaf or ball shape (depending on your preference).

Let it rise again for approximately 30 minutes. At this stage, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Set a bread or pizza stone in the oven to preheat, or line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the loaf to the stone or baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes. Let cool before slicing.

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Victorian Vegetarian Restaurants

Although English vegetarian cookbooks date from the late 17th century, by the end of the 19th century in England, there were numerous establishments throughout London and other English cities dedicated to the meat-free lifestyle. These ranged from tea rooms, restaurants, social clubs, even hospitals. Restaurants were often affiliated with specific vegetarian societies, such as the famous Alpha Restaurant, located in the heart of London at Oxford Street. Associated with the National Food Reform Movement (a spin-off from the original Vegetarian Societies based in London and Manchester), it offered diners a range of meat-free offerings as well as an entirely non-alcoholic beverage menu. Ads and menus, as seen below, give us a picture of  English vegetarianism at the end of the 19th century 

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Courtesy of The British Library , Evan.6835, ca. 1889

Courtesy of The British Library, Evan.6835, ca. 1889

A Few Good Books to Munch On