Facing the terrors of antediluvian vegetarianism for Cooking for Copyright
This week book coasters is supporting Cooking For Copyright, which is a national push to have non-published works freed up for reuse. I know the rest of you are going to be making fun things like Victoria sponges and ANZAC biscuits, so I decided to go as far the other way as possible. I decided to stare into the dark and terrible abyss that is early British vegetarianism, and face the pallid horrors to be found there.
Time to make the vegetarian haggis.
This is not the modern vegetarian haggis. There are excellent vegetarian haggises around. This is the ancient ur-haggis: filled with the mistakes of the first British vegetarians. The haggis which all modern vegetarians sensibly avoid, because our ancestors were idiots.
The pre-modern world had several schools of vegetarian cookery, of which the British was the very worst. The fragrant Indian styles are delicious. The mock meat and minimalism of Japanese monasteries is intellectually fascinating. The Constantinoplian style of hot and cold dishes is so good that Greeks and Turks fight over who mastered the aubergine. The British style, in contrast, is based on two great Victorian food fallacies. The Victorians believed that fibre was bad for you, and that spices make you sexually active (and so would cause dementia and madness)..
Early British vegetarian food, based on these two axioms, is often terrible. Vegetables are boiled into mush, because that, it was thought, prevented them from damaging the stomach. Long, slow cooking makes all of the brassicas sulphurous and bitter. They are rarely seasoned beyond salt. Some early vegetarians sing the praises of eating tapioca as a staple, because it combines the prized features of flavourlessness and texturelessness. Looking at early British vegetarian cookbooks, you can see where the stereotypes of sickly vegetarians come from.
This recipe comes from The Reform Cookery Book. I know many people are using recipes handed down from their grandmothers, but I have a sneaking suspicion that many of my grandmother’s recipes are still under copyright to Flo Bjekie-Petersen. Also, I don’t think low GI vegetarianism was really her thing.
“Fair fa’ yer honest, sonsy face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.”
It is to be hoped the shade of Burns will forbear to haunt those who have the temerity to appropriate the sacred name of Haggis for anything innocent of the time-honoured liver and lights which were the sine qua non of the great chieftain. But in Burns’ time people were not haunted by the horrors of trichinae, measly affections, &c., &c. (one must not be too brutally plain spoken, even in what they are avoiding), as we are now, so perhaps this practical age may risk the shade rather than the substance.
For a medium-sized haggis, then, toast a breakfastcupful oatmeal in front of the fire, or in the oven till brown and crisp, but not burnt. Have the same quantity of cooked brown or German lentils, and a half-teacupful onions, chopped up and browned in a little butter. Mix all together and add 4 ozs. chopped vegetable suet, and seasoning necessary of ketchup, black and Jamaica popper.
It should be fairly moist; if too dry add a little stock, gravy, or extract. Turn into greased basin and steam at least 3 hours. An almost too realistic imitation of “liver” is contrived by substituting chopped mushrooms for the lentils. It may also be varied by using crushed shredded wheat biscuit crumbs in place of the oatmeal. Any “remains” will be found very toothsome, if sliced when cold, and toasted or fried.
So, it starts with a bit of a quote, and some moralising, because that’s what we vegetarians do. It throws in a bit of Latin to show we are all educated people here. It then mentions worm infections and skin blisters because every good cookbook should tell you what you are avoiding now that you have embraced the author’s point of view.
A breakfastcupful is a liquid measure equal to about 283 ml, so I used a dry measuring cup and an extra splodge of oats. I presume that the original writer meant pinhead oats. I only had rolled and steelcut in the cupboard, so I used steelcut since they have a crumb more similar to mince than rolled oats do. I toasted them in the oven, because a fire would alarm my children and cats. Also, I’d have to take the batteries out of the smoke detectors. We can note here that the recipe comes from a time when even the quite well-off were cooking over flame, which means they had to use fuel and time to generate heat for cookery.
This recipe is meant to use up leftover, cooked lentils. I used brown lentils, because I didn’t have any leftovers, and brown come in a tin. A German lentil is what modern Australians call the greenish-brown common lentil. I’m guessing the name was removed from the language during the First World War, when so many other German terms were replaced.
A teacupful is half a breakfastcupful, which is to say, it is a liquid measure of about 141 ml. I used half a medium onion. Note that the recipe does not say if the onion is measure before or after cooking. Follow your heart on this, but I’m pro-onion and if I did this again, I’d use more.
Upon reading “vegetarian suet” I thought “What fresh Hell is this?” Suet is a sort of lumpy fat found around the organs of cattle, prized for its texture. I’ve had real suet, back before I went vegetarian, and it reminds me of rice bubbles soaked in lard. So, if you like barbecued rice crackles, ask your butcher to set you up.. Most vegetarian suet is rice flour churned with palm oil, so if you hate orangutans and want to kill as many as possible without shooting them yourself, it’s the ingredient for you. I used frozen, shredded vegetable shortening, although I think that was a failure, as it thinned out too much during cooking. Jamie Oliver uses frozen butter…you might try that if you are ovo-lacto.
Ketchup was originally an anchovy sauce, but it transitioned over time into a spicy, mushroom sauce, and then a tomato sauce. Its function is to add umami (meaty morishness) to food. I’m not sure what the original writer meant here, so I used a mixture of vegan Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste. I used a Worcestershire sauce which is made from apple puree and treacle, rather than the commoner tamarind-paste sauces, because it is what I had to hand, and because I wanted to add a little bit of the slight sweetness of organ meats.
Jamaica pepper is what we now call allspice.
I didn’t turn it into a greased basin, because my steamer is not large: instead I treated the king of puddings to a cheesecloth wrap, replacing the sheep’s stomach which is traditional for the haggis. I loosely knotted the cheesecloth rather than binding it like I would for a Christmas pudding because I expected the oats to expand, and didn’t want the cloth to split. I think if I’d used a rice flour suet here, the outcome woudl have been different, as the starch would have formed a crust.
Steaming for three hours demonstrates one of the reasons early vegetarianism and early feminism were so often in cahoots. Food reform, particularly food simplification, was seen as a way of freeing women from domestic labour. This recipe is a mock meat, and so uses the same baking times as its carnivorous parent recipe. Assuming you wanted dinner on the table at one (remembering that then, the big meal of the day was at lunchtime), this dish would need to go in the pot before ten. It is a leftovers dish, but its preparation would start at around nine, as you need to make up the fire. With cleanup, the entire dish takes about four hours. The maintenance while steaming is minimal: but still interrupts enough that it would not be possible to head away for a few hours outside the house.
Lentil dishes were seen as liberating women from constant shopping. Before the widespread use of refrigeration, fresh meat needed to be bought close to consumption, so women were constantly having to deal with it. Soaking lentils needs a bit of planning, but their shelf-stability meant you could just keep a sack of them lying around, instead of having to make trips to the butcher and poulterer. Vegetarian housewives could also afford to be a bit more slovenly. If you wanted to cut up the leftover vegetarian haggis for supper, you could use the same knife and block you’d used while preparing the raw ingredients.
I didn’t eat any of it immediately. Instead I allowed it to cool, tightened its cloth, and let it set in the refrigerator, hoping for “toothsome” slices. This allowed some of my vegetarian shortening to congeal, which gave the whole dish a firmer consistency. The night we were eating it, my wife made up a salad, so that if it was awful we could just throw some protein in the salad and have salad wraps.
So was it edible?
Texturally, it was pleasant. I expected it to be dense, like a rissole, but it was light and crumbly because of the additional oil from the melted shortening. It was slightly chewy, like brown rice. It reminded me of some North African couscous dishes. It was a little oily, but not exceptionally so.
The haggis lacked flavour. The recipe has a lot of fat, to carry flavour and, knowing how bland early vegetarian recipes are, I poured in ridiculous amounts of allspice, pepper and Worcester sauce. My initial impression was that it tasted like a tomato-flavoured muesli bar, which is rather better than it sounds. My wife said it reminded her of a dish from the Jamaican restaurant, so I think she picked the allspice better than me.
I think the original author would feel that a surge in my virility was unlikely, and that my stomach lining and sanity are safe.