Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Monday, 19 March 2012

Virtue and the Vegetable circa 1741

Vegetable diets were primarily pursued for economical purposes
Note in this title the words "cheap" and "palatable"
Amidst the pidgeon pies, the shoulders of mutton, and the hindquarters of beef, I have noticed, dear Readers, that I have neglected the "Pythagoreans" –– very small minority of 18th century Britons who chose to abstain from meat.

Like I said, this was a very small minority.  The majority of so-called "vegetarian" cookery books advertised vegetables as substitutes for those who could not afford meat.  If you came into a few extra shillings, throw in, by all means, the veal cutlets/beef bones/tongues and udders, etcetera.

At the Huntington Library today, I ran across two rather strange references from the famous 18th century socialite and taste-maker, Elizabeth Montagu.  (Read my previous post about her eating habits here.)

On May 5, 1741, at the age of 23, she remarked that she hoped an acquaintance "may not get the cholick with his vegetable diet, as it turns to vanity and wind he will be too much puff'd up with it."  


Like most people acquainted with the pleasures of a good steak, young Elizabeth seemed pretty skeptical about the virtues of vegetarianism.  I mean, this is coming from someone who grumbled having her dinner hosts dump an additional side of spinach on her plate after she helped herself to a second slice of lamb.  Indeed, this is coming from someone who enjoyed "2 dishes of chocolate" (recommended by her physician) for breakfast.  But only a week or so later, she seems to have a change of heart.  In a letter penned to her BFF, Margaret Cavendish, she explains:

"Must I leave your Grace for such a trivial consideration as my Supper.  They have sent me some chicken, but alas!  Can one eat one's acquaintance?  These inoffensive companions of my retirement can I devour them?  How often I have lately admired the provident care and the maternal affection of a hen, and shall I eat her hopeful son or fair daughter!"  

Tending chickens was a symbol of domesticity
made popular by authors like Samuel Richardson
She goes on ...

"Sure I should then be an unworthy member of the chicken society, I find myself reduced to a vegetable diet not as a Pythagorean, for fear of removing the soul of a friend, but to avoid destroying the body of an acquaintance.  There is not a sheep, a calf, a lamb, a goose, a hen, or a turkey in the neighborhood, with which I am not intimately acquainted ... I can never describe how nor tell why, but they look a little awfull, and pish and phoo with a dignity age will never give me, really it is droll..." 

Should we see this as surprising?  After all, I don't know any girl who didn't flirt with vegetarianism at some point during her 20s (including the Authoress of this Blog). But who knew that such sentiments extended so far back in history?  And what accounts for this change of heart?  Did young Elizabeth remain wedded to Pythagorean virtues?