How Vegetarians Learned to Love Nuts


Curry Sauce á Brazil from an 1892 cookbook

I recently tried out a vintage recipe on an unsuspecting crowd of partygoers: a Brazil nut curry sauce from Mrs. E. W. Bowdich’s  New Vegetarian Dishes, published in London in 1892. I’d never made it before and couldn’t guess how it would turn out, or go over at a party. The sauce was thick enough to work as a dip, which is how I served it, with pita chips. It was a huge hit. Every last bite was consumed, and the dish was unusual enough that it sparked lots of chatter at the party, leaving those who didn’t get any asking where it had gone.

There’s a story behind the recipe. It grew out of a debate among vegetarians in England that lasted for a couple of decades around the turn of the 20th century over whether nuts were good to eat or not. “We are only beginning very slowly to recognise the valuable properties of nuts and their possibilities in the cuisine,” wrote one who was enthused about them, Jean O. Mill, in her Reform Cookery Book: Up-To-Date Health Cookery for the Twentieth Century, published in London in 1909. “There is a rather deep-seated prejudice against them as food,” Mill acknowledged, but in her opinion, that was because they were mostly eaten at the end of a meal, with brandy and cigars, when people were already stuffed and tended to blame the bloating on what they ate last—nuts. Mrs. Bowdich was another fan of nuts, among the best of which, she said, were Brazil nuts.

Arthur Gay Payne, author of the 1891 volume Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery, begged to differ. “To suggest a meal of Brazil nuts would to many have a tendency to put vegetarianism in a ridiculous light, and nothing kills so readily as ridicule,” he declared.

Bowdich and other nut enthusiasts weren’t deterred. She and other early vegetarian fans of nuts suggested that Brazil nuts were especially nutritious, though they weren’t able to articulate why. Modern nutritional science has filled in that blank: Brazil nuts have the highest concentration of selenium of all foods, and that nutrient is an especially powerful antioxidant.


Two ounces of Brazil nuts

Brazil nuts are, by some accounts, a remedy for an array of afflictions. As one contemporary nutrition guru puts it, “Brazil nuts are quickly becoming one of the hottest foods for improving health and longevity. Not many foods are able to improve your sexual performance, protect against cancer, and boost your metabolism, but Brazil nuts can!”

Vegetarian pioneers knew that more than a century ago. I included four early Brazil nut recipes in Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine: a Brazil nut fritter and an omelet, Brazil nut biscuits and Mrs. Bowdich’s Brazil nut curry sauce.

Here’s the recipe, verbatim from the 1892 cookbook:

Curry Sauce á Brazil

2 ounces Brazil nuts
2 ounces butter
½ ounce brown flour
3 ounces tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons curry powder
½ pint brown stock
3 onions sliced

Shell the nuts and pound them in a mortar. Fry the onions in one and a half ounces of butter until slightly brown; add the nuts, salt, curry powder, stock, and tomatoes sliced; simmer for one hour. Strain and thicken with half an ounce each of butter and brown flour mixed.

New Vegetarian Dishes (1892)

I converted the ounces to measurements that I’m more familiar with, which worked out as follows: Brazil nuts weigh about a dozen to an ounce, so I used two dozen nuts in the recipe. One rather small tomato would weigh in at three ounce, and since I still have tomatoes from my end-of-summer garden I diverged from the recipe a bit by using two small ones, chopped up.

The recipe doesn’t indicate what size onions should be used. I love onions, but since I did not want to overwhelm the nuts, I used three small ones. And since I intended to used the recipe as a dip, not a sauce, I chopped them fine rather than slicing them.

As for the curry powder, I have an exceptionally spicy batch on hand at the moment, which I purchased at an Indian grocery store in Los Angeles. Not wanting fiery results, I went with a couple of teaspoons, not four, which was just right for the occasion.

I diverged from the original recipe in one other respect. I didn’t strain the sauce. Who would want to do that with a lustrous nut-pulpy onion sauce like this.

I hope some readers who try out this recipe will come back to this page and post your comments on it below.


A closeup of Curry Sauce á Brazil

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How Hotch Potch Got Its Name and Lost Its Mutton

hotch potch detail

Hotch Potch recipe from Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery (1891)

Hotch potch, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is a “mutton stew with mixed vegetables.” Its name, says Oxford, the leading authority on British English, is derived from the middle English word for “blending together” that gave us modern English speakers “hodge podge.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary, the recognized authority on American English, meanwhile, defines hotch potch as “a thick soup or stew of vegetables, potatoes, and usually meat.”

It’s curious that it took an American dictionary to recognize that meat is not a mandatory component of hotch potch because it was a British cookbook that first published a recipe for a meatless version of the dish. A New System of Vegetable Cookery, a seminal vegetarian cookbook first published in 1812 by Martha Brotherton, included a meatless hotch potch recipe. Other early vegetarian cookbooks published in England in the nineteenth century followed suit.

Martha and her husband Joseph were charter members of a religious sect formed in 1809 called Bible Christians. They believed that good Christians must abstain from eating meat because, according to the Book of Genesis, after God created edible plants and fruit-bearing trees, he said to Adam and Eve, “to you it shall be for meat.” Plagues, poverty, wars, starvation and all manner of other afflictions that beset the human race were a result of mankind’s defiance of that divine edict, the Bible Christians believed.

Several dozen members of the sect immigrated from England to Philadelphia in 1817. They were instrumental in spreading the gospel of vegetarianism in America. Martha Brotherton’s cookbook, which was reissued three times, the latest in 1833, set the stage for a proliferation of vegetarian cookbooks in England by the end of the century. Joseph, who earned a fortune in his family’s textile business, gave that all up to become a full-time crusader against not only meat-eating, but slavery, child labor and other social ills. He was ultimately elected to the British Parliament, and chaired a meeting in London in 1847 that led to formation of the first Vegetarian Society.

One sign that vegetarianism had evolved from a peculiar habit of a fringe group to an acceptable dietary choice for the mainstream was the publication in 1891 of Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery: A Manual of Cheap and Wholesome Diet, by the era’s leading publisher of periodicals about housekeeping and family life. The author, Arthur Gay Payne, a popular sportswriter perhaps best known in his day for a book about how to swim, explicitly aimed to appeal to nonvegetarians. His recipes, as a result, were often loaded with cream and butter or enriched with roux. The pinnacle of vegetarian cuisine in Payne’s book was a deep-fried vegetable fritter. One of the recipes in his book was an upgraded version of vegetarian hotch potch.

When I set out to put an early meatless hotch potch recipe to the test I passed on Martha’s simple but bland-sounding version and opted for Payne’s somewhat more elaborate variation instead. Carrots and turnips are a common ingredient in each recipe. Another standard component of hotch potch is green peas added near the end of the cooking process. The recipes vary in other respects. Brotherton’s includes potatoes, for instance, while Payne’s version calls for pearl barley. In Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine, I have reprinted 27 recipes from the 1833 edition of Brotherton’s book, and 44 recipes from Payne’s book, including the recipes from hotch potch from each. Here they are:

Hotch Potch

Grate three large carrots, and two or three turnips; boil them with a pint and a half of green peas, and an onion sliced, with just as much water as will cover them; when tender, rub them through a coarse sieve, return the pulp into a pan with some butter, pepper, and salt; have ready a pint of rather young peas, boiled, some carrot, turnip, and lettuce sliced, and stew till tender; mix all together, and serve it up in a deep vegetable dish or tureen.

A New System of Vegetable Cookery (1812)


Cut up some celery, onion, carrot, turnip, and leeks into small pieces and fry them for a few minutes in about two ounces of butter in a frying-pan, very gently, taking care that they do not in the least degree turn colour. Previous to this, wash and boil about a quarter of a pound of pearl barley for four or five hours. When the barley is tender, or nearly tender, add the contents of the frying-pan. Let it all boil till the vegetables are tender, and about half an hour before the soup is sent to table throw in, while the soup is boiling, half a pint of fresh green peas—those known as marrowfats are best, —and about five minutes before sending the soup to table throw in a spoonful (in the proportion of a dessertspoonful to every quart) of chopped, blanched parsley—i.e., parsley that has been thrown into boiling water before it is chopped. Colour the soup green with a little spinach extract (vegetable colouring sold in bottles by all grocers). The thinness of the soup can be removed by the addition of a small quantity of white roux.

Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery: A Manual of
Cheap and Wholesome Diet

hotch potch detail uncropped

Hotch Potch recipe from Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery (1891)

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This Rhubarb Gazpacho-like Soup Was a Raw Food Pioneer’s Panacea

panacea soupI talked about my book, Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine, at a recent event at the Big Blue Marble bookstore in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. The intrepid group of attendees were treated – challenged, would be another way to put it – with samples of a couple of old recipes, including one of early 20th century raw foodist George Drews’ concoctions, Panacea Soup. It is, in effect, a gazpacho-like blended soup spiked with rhubarb juice. As with most of Drews’ recipes, he allows substitutions. On the items with options, I went with rhubarb, peanuts and honey. The sweetener in lieu of olive oil seemed a no-brainer given the bitter kick contributed by the rhubarb juice.

I served shot glass-sized servings to everyone. Only one in 10 asked for a small refill. That’ll give you a sense of whether the recipe is palatable or not. It was not, at least as is, all of the book talk-attendees agreed. Everyone also agreed the soup was helped with a pinch of salt, which suggested that, perhaps, it is something that might be saved by still other amendments. Here’s the recipe:

Panacea Soup

2 oz. Rhubarb – or Pineapple juice and
1 oz. Peanuts or Pignolias flaked, then add
2 oz. Cucumber peeled and grated
2 oz. Tomato peeled and macerated with a fork,
½ oz. Assorted Savory Herbs minced and
½ oz. Olive Oil (spoonful) or Honey (teaspoonful).

Beat well and serve with an aluminum teaspoon.

Source: Unfired Food and Tropho-Therapy (Food Cure) [1912]

Drews, who lived in Chicago and traveled around the Midwest on lecture tours, does not explain in Unfired Foods what he has against vinegar, but he declares that rhubarb juice is “Nature’s most wholesome substitute” for it, and more generally, “fills a large bill in the natural diet.”

It must, of course, not be cooked, which is one big strike against rhubarb pie, in Drew’s book. But the main reason pies are “very objectionable,” in his opinion, is because “they involve the mixing of white flour, starch, oil and commercial sugar which are all perverted approximate food elements.” Drews commends it for use in juices, soups, mixed with “nut milk” and “nut cheese,” and as a salad or beet dressing.

“The juice is best and most easily extracted in the following manner,” Drews writes. “Take the fresh stalk and cut it into two inch lengths and then grate the cut section on a coarse grater until it is grated half way (or one inch). Next turn it about and hold on the gratefl fibre to grate the remainder. Lay the fibre into another dish and when all the sections are grated discard the fibre after the juice is pressed out of it. Now a few fibres will have fallen into the juice and these can be fished out with a fork.”

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An 1893 Antidote for ‘Sexual Excesses’? Beet Coffee and Hash

From Ella Kellogg's 1893 Cookbook, Beet 'Coffee' and Beet Hash

From Ella Kellogg’s 1893 Cookbook, Beet ‘Coffee’ and Beet Hash

John Kellogg, whose family was made famous by cornflakes, had a bizarre obsession with sex. The most abominable sexual practice of all, in his view, was masturbation. That was a major a focus of a best-selling book about child-rearing that he published in 1881. Stimulants in the diet – and tight pants – were to blame, he believed. His views shaped the daily regimen for the hundreds of “inmates” who resided at any given time at the health sanitarium he supervised in Battle Creek, Michigan. Those views were also reflected, to a certain extent, in an encyclopedic cookbook published in 1893 by his wife, Ella Ervilla Kellogg, called Science in the Kitchen.

Ella was an expert on diet in her own right. She graduated from college at the age of 19, then studied at her future’s husband school of hygiene before their marriage in 1879. She had overseen the kitchens at the Battle Creek sanitarium for more than a decade when she wrote her book. If she shared some of her husband’s more lurid views on sex, she didn’t say so in her cookbook. But she did assert that alcohol, meat and certain other foods stirred up one’s “animal propensities.” The recipes in her book were geared towards avoiding that peril. They are therefore, not surprisingly, about as bland as can be. Many of the recipes in the 609-page volume consist of plain. boiled grains or vegetables, with some cream and salt stirred in but no other seasonings.

I included a representative selection of 23 of Ella Kellogg’s recipes in Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine, primarily as historical curiosities, not because I thought they’d be good. But you never know with these old recipes. Some of the weirder ones turn out to be sleepers.

I decided to try out two of her dishes on a friend of mine, Kent Matthies, when he came over for lunch today. They happened to be beet dishes. Lo and behold, Kent announced, on arrival, that he really loves beets. Okay, I thought, maybe these recipes have a chance, after all. Here they are:

Beet Hash

Chop quite finely an equal quantity of cold boiled or baked beets and boiled or baked potatoes. Put into a shallow saucepan, add salt and sufficient hot cream to moisten. Toss frequently, and cook until well heated throughout. Serve hot.

Beet Coffee

Wash best beets thoroughly, but do not scrape; slice, and brown in a moderate oven, taking care not to burn. When brown, break in small pieces and steep the same as ordinary coffee.

Source: Science in the Kitchen, A Scientific Treatise
on Food Substances and Their Dietetic Properties,
Together  with a Practical Explanation of the Principles
of Healthful Cookery, and a Large Number of
Original, Palatable, and Wholesome Recipes (1893)

The beet hash was easy enough to reproduce. It was an utterly plain but respectable side

beet hash, before I put it in a saucepan and added cream

beet hash, before I put it in a saucepan and added cream

dish. Not that I would want to stir up ungovernable sexual tendencies or anything, but it could be enlivened with some parsley, scallions, chives or other fresh, chopped herbs, or perhaps with some carmelized onion or roasted garlic. On this first test of the recipe, however, I wanted to stick as closely to the original as possible. So my only departure time was to use half-and-half (because I had some on hand) instead of cream.

The “coffee” recipe left a lot more wiggle room. How many beets to how much water? How brown should the beets get? And how was “ordinary” coffee “steeped” in Ella Ervilla Kellogg’s day? Those were all open questions.

In restrospect, I could have browned the beets a bit more, maybe even to a crisp. The instruction about “breaking” the beets into bits suggests as much. When I took my beet slices out of the oven, they were brown but still leathery and pliable, so they didn’t “break” into pieces. I had to dice them with a knife. I also could have used more beets. (I made a very small batch, with about a pint of water and one medium-sized beet.)

Guessing how coffee was steeped in 1893, I simmered the chopped up pieces of browned

browned slices of beets, ready to be chopped and steeped in simmering water

browned slices of beets, ready to be chopped and steeped in simmering water

beets in the water for half an hour or so on very low heat and then poured it through a strainer, yielding a thickened, brownish-red brew. Per the recipe, I added no salt, no nothing. The result? Kent insisted, in all sincerity, that he loved it, though he allowed that it could perhaps be improved with a squeeze of lemon juice. I got my little glass of the stuff down, but truth be told, while I could see that it would serve well as a broth base for certain soups, I didn’t enjoy it straight up as a drink. I spiked the second half of my serving with half-and-half, which didn’t really help. Yes, lemon juice might save it. Or maybe celery and perhaps even a cucumber, tossed all together in a blender, to produce a beet-gazpacho-like soup. And why not a drop or two of Tabasco sauce? To be sure, such modifications would probably ruin the recipe as a sexual suppressant, but I might try out some of those ideas anyway, next time I give Ella Kellogg’s “beet coffee” a shot.

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First ‘Tofu’ Recipe in a Cookbook in the West?

to fu chi

I’m pretty sure a cookbook published in Tennessee in 1935 was the first English language book to carry a recipe that called tofu “tofu.” The book, Food for Life, The Art and Science of Preparing Food, published by the Nashville Agricultural Normal Institute, a Seventh Day Adventist school in Madison, Tennessee, carried a couple dozen recipes that called for the stuff. But in all but one it is called “soy cheese.” And in most of the other recipes, the tofu was disguised – in a waldorf salad, for instance, or a spaghetti sauce or a rice casserole. One recipe was an exception. To begin with, the title uses the Chinese/Japanese name for the curdled soy product, though the syllables are separated by a space: “To Fu Chi.” Moreover, in this recipe, the tofu was no shrinking violet. It is the unmistakable main ingredient. Here it is:

To Fu Chi

Slice soy cheese into slices one inch thick. Cut these slices into the shape of a cornucopia. Brown for one minute in deep fat. Boil rice until tender, blanch in cold water, adding a bit of butter and soy sauce. Slice the browned soy cheese part way open and stuff the rice into this opening. Pour over the cheese more soy sauce and serve with parsley. A bit of sugar mixed with the soy sauce makes a nice addition.

Source: Food for Life, The Art and Science
of Preparing Food (1935)

Researchers at the institute in rural Tennessee had been experimenting with cultivating soybean varieties and turning the harvest into soy foods for a couple of decades, in an ongoing effort by practitioners of the faith, which recommends a vegetarian diet, to find palatable, high-protein substitutes for meat. The author of Food for Life, Frances Linda Dittes, who was director of food and nutrition at the institute, wrote her PhD dissertation on tofu. The book was one of the first that attempted to introduce the odd but nutritious product to mainstream America.

My first glance at the recipe, one of 16 early soy recipes that I reprinted in Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine, left me wondering, what in the world was Frances Dittes thinking? A inch-thick slab of tofu cut into the shape of a cornucopia? Huh?! Then deep-fried, slit open and stuffed with flavored rice? It was sure to be awfully bland, I figured. And it certainly wasn’t going to be something that would win fans for tofu.



So, honestly, what was she thinking? My best guess is that Dittes was trying to replicate a common Japanese picnic and school lunchbox item known as inarizushi. She had surely never seen inarizushi but she may well have heard about it from Seventh Day Adventist missionaries who had spent time in Japan. Indeed, according to a history of the Tennessee institute, it was established to train members of the denomination to serve in missions at home and abroad, and returning missionaries may have first sparked the school’s interest in soybeans.

tofu pressed under a weight

tofu pressed under a weight

There are some resemblances. The tofu skin of inarizushi, called aburaage, is deep-fried, and it is shaped like a pocket, which could have been the inspiration for the curious instruction in the recipe to cut the tofu in the shape of a cornucopia. The rice in inarizushi is flavored with sweetened soy sauce and dashi fish broth. The rice in To Fu Chi seems to be a 1930s Tennessee variation: flavored with sweetened soy sauce and butter.

The rice in inarizushi often includes slivered carrots and/or mushrooms as well as sesame seeds, and it is often garnished with more sesame seeds and perhaps some flecks of seaweed. The parsley, I’m guessing, is a stand-in for seaweed. The most problematic difference? The skin of inarizushi is paper thin. I wasn’t sure whether a thick slab of tofu would hold up to being slit open and stuffed. But I resolved to give it my best effort, drawing on a couple of decades of experience with tofu to make it work.

tofu is still too thick

tofu is still too thick

I started with a block of “firm” tofu. As is my practice whenever I stir-fry tofu and want the pieces to hold their shape, I started by pressing the block under a weight for a couple of hours, to force out excess water and compress it. It was still over and inch-and-a-half thick, so I shaved off half an inch. Then I cut the block into an elongated triangle, my best guess at what tofu shaped like a cornucopia should look like. Next, I employed a technique that I learned from one of my daughters several years ago. I froze the tofu triangle for an hour or two, then thawed it. That works wondrously to toughen up tofu for any dish in which you want the tofu to remain intact.

To Fu Chi simmered in Thai curry sauce

To Fu Chi simmered in Thai curry sauce

So, how did my experiment with this recipe pan out? As the top photo shows, the tofu did, indeed, keep its shape. And it was pliable yet tough enough that I was able to stuff some rice into the slit without causing it to fall apart. As I expected, the recipe, followed as is, was so bland that few who tried it once would bother with it again. But I had a quick fix for that. After photographing my attempt to faithfully replicate To Fu Chi, I plopped the stuffed block of tofu into a sauce pan with some Trader Joe’s Thai Green Curry Simmer Sauce and simmered it on each side for about five minutes. The result: quite delicious, though if I were to do it again, I would try starting with a thinner slab of tofu. Who knows, if there had been Trader Joe’s in Madison, Tennessee in the 1930s, and Dittes had used some of their sauces to experiment with more flavorful variations of To Fu Chi, tofu might have taken off in America decades earlier than it did.

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‘Sausages’ Made with Brussel Sprouts

Two cookbooks published in London in the early 1890s were written for vegetarian homemakers who were facing the challenge of cooking for carnivores. The authors of the two books, E.W. Bowdich and Arthur Gay Payne, had some similar ideas about what it would take to lure skeptical family members into liking meat-less meals. They both advocated use of lots of butter and cream, for instance, and they both believed fried foods could do the trick.

brussels sprouts sausages 1

Here is one of Mrs. Bowdich’s contributions to the genre: a fritter made with potatoes and brussel sprouts, shaped like a sausage and fried a golden brown.

Mrs. Bowdich doesn’t specify how the brussel sprouts should be cooked. I opted to dice them and brown them in a cast iron skillet in olive oil and butter before blending them in with the mashed potatoes and bread crumbs.

More than 30 other recipes from Mrs. Bowdich’s book, including salads, stews, soups and savory puddings, are reprinted in Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine.  Here’s her recipe for a breaded vegetable fritter that she believed could be a gateway to vegetarianism for late 19th century meat-eating Londoners.

brussels sprouts sausages 2

Brussels Sprouts Sausages

4 ounces cooked sprouts
2 ounces mashed potatoes
2 ounces bread crumbs
1 ounce butter
1 teaspoon sage
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 egg and bread crumbs

Mix the vegetables, bread crumbs and flavouring well together, moisten with half the egg, form into sausages, roll in the other half of egg and bread crumbs, and fry in the one ounce of butter or boiling oil.

Source: New Vegetarian Dishes (London, 1892)

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Mixed Flavors in a 1912 Raw Food Cookbook

peanut and radish 2This is one of the appetizers I served at a dinner party recently, based on a suggestion from a raw-food advocate named George J. Drews. In 1912, he published a cookbook in Chicago, which seemed to be something of a hotbed for raw foodism in those days, called Unfired Food and Tropho-Therapy (Food Cure). Drews was emphatic that “physical, mental and moral diseases” will afflict anyone who eats cooked food. Unfired foods, in contrast, “keep the body clean, cure all diseases of body and mind, and eradicate immoral tendencies.”

Vegetarians who cook their vegetables might as well keep eating meat, Drews scoffed. There was a Raw Food Society in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, but Drews found fault with their eating habits, as well. Their banquets were replete with raw shellfish and eggs, and dishes spiked with vinegar, items that were barred from Drews’ version of a healthy raw food diet.

Drews had other differences with two of his most prominent protégés, John and Vera Richter. After meeting and studying under Drews in the Midwest, they moved to Los Angeles and opened a raw food restaurant. In a cookbook she published, Vera Richter counseled against combining fruits and vegetables in a meal, “as this is likely to produce fermentation.” Simple dishes were best, she insisted. “The nearer you can get to one class of food at a meal, the better.” Drews, in contrast, was a big believer in carefully chosen combinations of raw foods. peanut and radish

Many natural foods, he explained, can be combined so that “when they are chewed together their flavors blend in saliva into a new and surprisingly delicious taste.” Combinations recommended by Drews include chopped pecans and seedless raisins mixed with wheat;  lettuce and grated coconut; and grated sweet potatoes, chopped cabbage and chopped almonds dressed with honey. Another “surprisingly delicious taste” could be created, he said, by chewing two or three peanuts together with each bite of radish. Which is how I came to present the friends who recently came for dinner with a rather spare appetizer.

They were intrigued by the story of Drews and his culinary notions. We were all underwhelmed by the treat, itself. For one thing, the texture of three peanuts and a bite of radish just didn’t mesh. But crushed peanuts or a peanut sauce on shredded radishes? That would work. Come to think of it, Southeast Asians already do that.

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Nutritious Haricot Fritters Were a Trendy Vegetarian Snack in Late-19th Century London

According to Mrs. E.W. Bowdich, no legume was more nutritious than the haricot bean. Three dozen of the recipes in her cookbook, New Vegetarian Dishes, which was published in London in 1892, used haricot beans in one form or another. One of them, which I included in Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine, is a haricot croquette that she called Golden Marbles.

Golden Marbles from an 1892 London Cookbook

Golden Marbles from an 1892 London Cookbook

Vegetarians in late 19th century England had their disagreements, but apparently not about haricot beans. “Medical men are all agreed on one point, and that is that haricot beans rank almost first among vegetables as a nourishing article of diet,” declared A. G. Payne, in an 1891 vegetarian cookbook. “Among the pulses there is none more nourishing, more generally liked, nor more useful to the vegetarian cook,” added Bowdich a year later in her cookbook. She proceeded to reel off a list of haricot bean, soups, stews, pies and ragouts to prove the point.

navy beans

(left to right) cannellini beans, great northern beans, navy beans

But what did Payne and Bowdich mean by haricot bean? I’ve seen the label haricot verts on tiny French green beans in high-end farmers markets. But the 19th century vegetarian authors were referring to a dried white bean. Which among the dried white beans commonly available today is the closest fit?

An Internet search turns up an array of conflicting answers. Wikipedia’s entry for navy beans seems to have it right. Haricots are from the branch of the bean family headed by the navy bean. Contrary to some seemingly authoritative sources online, cannellini beans are not haricots. They are a member of the kidney bean family. The navy bean is quite a different thing. The classic bean in Boston baked beans, it got its name when it was a mainstay of U.S. Navy rations in the 19th century.

According to Wikipedia, other beans in the navy family include Great Northern, RainyRiver, Robust, Michelite and Sanilac. According to A.G. Payne, the best haricot beans in his day were from Soissons. To this day, Haricots de Soissons are a special variety of exceptionally large haricot bean. They resemble lima beans but in fact are giant navy beans.

Vegetarians in the 19th century believed haricots were exceptionally nutritious, though its not clear why they thought so. In fact, whether they knew it or not, navy beans have unusually high level of saponins, which have antibacterial and anti-fungal effects and have been found to inhibit cancer cell growth. Navy beans also cook more quickly than kidney beans, and they don’t hold their shape as well when cooked, which means they might not be the best choice for a bean salad but are ideal when you want a smooth, creamy puree, such as in a soup or a fritter that must hold together in the frying pan.

Mrs. Bowdich’s potato-haricot fritters certainly kept their shape – and earned their Golden Marble moniker – when I fried them in half an inch of oil for a couple of minutes on one side and couple of minutes on the other.  (She would have deep-fried them, since she listed a deep-fryer with wire mesh basket as a necessity in a well-appointed vegetarian kitchen.) Here’s her recipe:

Golden Marbles

¼ pound haricot bean pulp
2 ounces bread crumbs
¼ pound mashed potatoes
1 shalot
1 egg
½ teaspoon salt
Bread crumbs

Rub well-cooked haricots through a wire sieve until the requisite quantity of pulp is obtained, add the bread crumbs, potato, salt and shalot, which must be very finely minced, stir in half a beaten egg, shape into little balls the size of marbles, roll them in the other half of egg and the bread crumbs, and fry in boiling fat until a golden brown.

Source: New Vegetarian Dishes (London, 1892)

Golden Marbles have been a hit with friends I’ve tried them on. The recipe could be modified to create an array of variations. If you blended some Indian spices and green peas into the potato-bean mixture, for instance, and formed them into larger, pyramid shapes, you’d end up with a very nice samosa-like fritter that must be healthier than a standard samosa made of a spiced potato mixture wrapped in dough and fried.

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