Selling Vegetarianism in 1910 With Lentils Posing as Duck

Was vegetarianism a harder sell in Northern California than in Southern California a century ago? The San Francisco Chronicle certainly thought so, judging from an article in that paper in 1897 about a British immigrant named M.S. Manning, who had come to California to “spread propaganda for the conversion of mankind to the use of an exclusive diet of raw fruits and nuts.” He had quickly discerned that the denizens of San Francisco were much too sensible for such nonsense, the paper was pleased to report, but other parts of the state were more receptive to his kooky teachings.  “The field chosen by Mr. Manning for the scene of his personal labors is Southern California, where supplies of ‘natural food’ are always abundant and disciples are easy to gather from the perennial influx of cadaverous strangers, whose main occupation is the contemplation of the workings of their interior works,” the Chronicle joshed.

‘Roast Duck’ With Walnut Gravy

Two of the first vegetarian cookbooks published in California, both of which are represented in Vintage California Cuisine, lend further credence to the notion that at least some Southern Californians around the turn of the 20th century were more open to the possibility of going without meat than their fellow Californians to the north. Practical Vegetarian Cookery, published in 1897 by the Theosophical Society, was written for true believers who didn’t need any encouragement to wean themselves from an animal diet. Members of the society, which at the time had its international headquarters at Point Loma, near San Diego, were steeped in a philosophy which held that eating meat would hamper their ascent in the afterlife. On the other hand, Substitutes for Flesh Foods, published in Oakland in 1910, targeted folks who, as the title of the book and many of its recipes implied, were willing to consider giving up meat but wished they didn’t have to.

Consider, for instance, one of the recipes from Substitutes for Flesh Foods that I tested during my recent visit with my mostly vegetarian daughter, Sara, and her boyfriend Michael in Los Angeles. It is a lentil casserole curiously called “roast duck.” The recipe suggests serving it with gravy, so we whipped up some walnut gravy, using a recipe from the same book. Here are the recipes.

Roast Duck (Vegetarian Style)

lentil pulp, 1¾ cups
minced onion, ¼ cup
chopped parsley, 1/3 cup
stale bread crumbs, ground fine, 1 cup
eggs (one hard-boiled), 3
butter, 1 teaspoonful
chopped walnuts, ½ cup

Take lentil pulp, one hard-boiled egg chopped fine, one beaten egg, minced onion, and chopped parsley browned in a little oil, one teaspoonful of butter, and salt to taste. Mix well and put one-half of this mixture in an oiled baking pan, then a layer of the following mixture: Stale bread crumbs soaked in hot water, chopped walnuts, a little grated onion, one egg, and salt and sage to taste. Finish with a layer of the lentil mixture. Bake, and serve with gravy.

Walnut Gravy

walnuts, ground, 1 cup
milk, 1 cup
flour, 1 tablespoon
flour, browned, 2 tablespoons
water, 2 cups
salt to taste

Put the water and milk in a saucepan, and when boiling add the walnuts.  Thicken with the flour, and salt to taste.

Source: Substitutes for Flesh Foods (1910)

On paper, the lentil concoction did not look promising. My instincts told me that a layer of bread crumbs in a lentil casserole might be a good idea, but that it should go on top, where it could form a nice, crunchy crust, not in the middle where it would, I assumed, turn into a gummy mess. With that unpleasant thought in mind, I was prepared, in advance, to pronounce this recipe a disaster.

Well, what do you know! The lentil layers on the bottom and top formed the sort of pleasing crust I wanted in a casserole. And the bread and egg mixture, thanks in large part to the inclusion of walnuts in that layer, had the texture of a nutty bread pudding that worked with the overall dish. As a matter of fact, it was reminiscent – at least remotely – of a slice of roasted fowl with well-browned skin.

The verdict of my taste-testers: “Oh my god,” exclaimed Sara. “It tastes like duck … I think.” She admitted that she couldn’t remember ever have had real duck, but Michael, who has “had lots of duck in my day” declared with greater certainty, “It does taste like duck!” Had the recipe’s title not planted that notion in our minds, would we have detected a resemblance? Probably not. But the title clearly served its purpose. And whatever it was called, we all agreed that it was quite good, and very hearty.

It would be better, I believe, if I had planned ahead a day or two and made my own bread crumbs, preferably with some good, whole-grain bread. Instead, I used store-bought panko bread crumbs. And instead of mashing the lentils with Sara’s potato masher, next time I will try running them through a food mill. In any event, the result this time was pleasing enough that, much to my surprise, I will certainly consider trying this again.

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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One Response to Selling Vegetarianism in 1910 With Lentils Posing as Duck

  1. TicklishMeerkat says:

    I just found your blog and love it. What a neat focus you’ve chosen!

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