An 18th Century Vegetarian Cookbook, and a Peek into the Diets of the Poor


We are occasionally asked on our Facebook page and our Youtube channel if we could provide more vegetarian recipes. A few have asked if we have run across any information on vegetarianism in the 18th century.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject — not for a second. I will share a few things, however, that I have recently run across.

First, here’s a link to an interesting book by Colin Spencer, called The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, this book seems to be a go-to.

While the history of vegetarianism can be traced back thousands of years, much of its ancient form was founded on religious belief and ritual. Modern vegetarian ideologies are often based on ethical convictions or dietary health concerns. Spencer suggests that modern vegetarianism can trace its roots through the “radical ideas” forged in 17th century Europe.

Where are the Cookbooks?

Walk into any bookstore today, or peruse the shelves on line, and you can find volumes of vegetarian cookbooks. Not so in the 18th Century. That’s not to say that vegetarians didn’t exist then. It’s apparent from the few things I found that there was a segment of society whose dietary choices were determined by their ethical convictions.

Keep in mind that 18th century Europe was experiencing a massive population expansion. Food shortages were commonplace. Much of the wheat, for instance, that was grown in early America was exported to Great Britain to meet the under-supplied demand there for bread. This development resulted in a food vacuum of sorts that was naturally filled by indigenous “Indian corn.”

The old saying goes, “as American as apple pie.” Apple pie wasn’t American. There were scores of recipes for that dish long before Amelia Simmons ever picked up her first spoon. But corn…now that’s American.

I’ve had a few people ask if any vegetarian cookbooks existed in the 18th century. My response has always been, not that I’m aware of. I did, however recently run across a book that I thought might silence the scoffing from my fellow historical foodie enthusiast reenacting meat-eaters. It’s called, The Pythgorean Diet, of Vegetables Only. As I tore the Amazon box open, I thought to myself, “Here it is! A better answer for my vegetarian friends!” I was disappointed, frankly, to discover that it was a translation of a discourse delivered in Florence, Italy, by Antonio Cocchi, in 1743. There were no recipes. It wasn’t a cookbook. It was an argument for the Pythagorean philosophy that can be traced through time for thousands of years.

But wait! There’s still hope! Here’s another book I ran across: Primitive Cookery; or the Kitchen Garden Display’d, written in 1767. I suppose it could classify for the most part as an ovo-lacto vegetarian cookbook, as many of the recipes still include eggs and dairy products. As I began reading this book, however, two things quickly became apparent.

First, this book was written to encourage healthy eating among those who could not afford meat, rather than those who chose not to eat it for ethical reasons. This, in and of itself, is a bit ironic. A cookbook written for the poor. At the bottom of the book’s frontispiece is printed “[Price One Schilling.]” — full-day’s wages (and a pretty steep price) for a common man.

Second, this cookbook, to a greater extent, was a collection of recipes found elsewhere; likely in other cookbooks.

The feature in this book that I found most noteworthy, however, was an a section in the back titled, “A Bill of Fare of Seventy Pretty Little Dishes, Which Will not Stand in Two-Pence Charge.” It’s a list of seventy suggested meals that a poor person might eat. It’s kind of a “missing link” of sorts in period cookbooks. Period cookbooks were written for people of some means. They also tended to assume a certain commonsense among their readers. Some things aren’t mentioned in cookbooks because it’s assumed the reader knew already.

This section in Primitive Cooking offers insight in lowly cuisine — a rarity among period cookbooks. For example, recipe #11:

“Take eggs and beat them well together, and fry them with butter, when done, melt some butter and vinegar and put upon them.”

When it comes to historical reenacting, and specifically juried events, commonsense has occasionally been known to be thrown out with the bath water.

“Do you have documentation…any original recipes for those scrambled eggs you’re eating there for breakfast?”

“Well…no…uh, but…”

As far as vegetarianism goes in the 18th century, sure it existed, but for the masses, I’d venture to guess that it existed by necessity (or the lack thereof) much more commonly than it did by ethic conviction. I say that acknowledging that I have yet to touch upon the topic of Lent — the season leading to Easter when, in addition to other rights and rituals, the consumption of meat was generally forbidden. If you are a vegetarian trying to maintain or incorporate your dietary choices in your historical repertoire, you may wish to approach your research first with Primitive Cookery and then expand it to consider the foods of Lent. There are numerous period cookbooks that address those dietary restrictions.

Primitive Cookery is also an excellent resource for anyone, vegetarian or meat-eater alike, interested in understanding what life in the 18th century was like. Back then, the vast majority of people worked hard to squeak out a living.  This book is an excellent resource — that is, if you can sacrifice a full schilling. Fortunately, you can pick up the paperback version on Amazon for ten or twenty bucks.

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13 Responses to An 18th Century Vegetarian Cookbook, and a Peek into the Diets of the Poor

  1. This is a very difficult and complicated subject. Some of the old cookbooks give alternative receipts ( recipes ) for fish days, as opposed to flesh days. These are of course early books or manuscripts written before Martin Luther’s time. Other sources might include sections in the old books dedicated to invalid care or herbalist’s canons. Monastery records and writings might be a good place to start. To complicate matters more, diets were formulated around the ” humors ” of the body and what was required for each individual. The results might seem very strange to our way of thinking as well as our tastes.

  2. Bernadette Rogoff says:

    What an excellent article! So much of what’s fascinating are those “ordinary” areas of life, including scrambled eggs…

  3. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 37) |

  4. stevecunio says:

    There is also “Evelyn, John. “Classic Cook Books: 17th century, Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets (1699).” iBooks.” (It’s free and, I think, available for Kindle as well). Evelyn apparently became a vegetarian later in life. The book does have some recipes.

  5. stevecunio says:

    There is also John Evelyn’s “Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets (1699).” iBooks. (free and also available for Kindle, I think). Evelyn became a vegetarian for moral reasons. The book does have some recipes.

  6. Pingback: Two 18th Century Vegetarian Recipes: Carolina Snow Balls and a Simple (but Delicious) Boiled Rice Pudding | Savoring the Past

  7. nokomarie says:

    Well done. That was a an excellent response to a question I frequently see on cookery sites. I will add that there are quite a few very old medical texts out there which prescribed vegetarian diets for the adjustment of the humors and as a cleansing action for general health for those who had been living too hard. Such recommendations were so entrenched in tradition that, in the 1920s, Punch had a very funny cartoon showing a specialist going to his wit’s end prescribing for a patient who; lived in the country, neither smoke nor drank, bathed in cold water, wore wool next to the skin, took long brisk walks and was a vegetarian!

  8. stevecunio says:

    There is another (almost) period book you might be interested in. “Acetaria A Discourse Of Sallets By John Evelyn, Esq.” Published in 1699 and available free for both Kindle and iBooks.

  9. Grymm Grymmsson says:

    Thomas Tryon, on of those late 17thC extremists, wrote a vegetarian cookbook circa 1696, well 200 pages on why his ideas were right & 18 pages of fleshless recipes but a veggy cookbook.
    The title, typically of the time, is about a paragraph long and I can’t find my pdf copy but google ‘Thomas Tryon’ & ‘vegetarian’it should be near the top.


  10. Grymm Grymmsson says:

    Wisdom’s Dictates: or Aphorisms and Rules, Physical, Moral, and Divine; For Preserving the Health of the Body and the Peace of the Mind, fit to be regarded and practiced by all that would enjoy the Blessings of the present and future World.

    To which is added, A Bill of Fare Of Seventy five Noble Dishes of Excellent Food, far exceeding those made of Fish or Flesh, which Banquet I present to the Sons of Wisdom, or such as shall decline that depraved Custom of Eating Flesh and Blood.

  11. Erika says:

    A very enjoyable article. My favorite “vegetarian” 18th c. receipt book is Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery: Or, the Kitchen-garden Display’d … to which is Added, the Physical Virtues of Every Herb and Root In Two Parts I.Shewing the best and most approved Methods of raising and bringing to the greatest Perfection all the Products of the Kitchen-Garden; with a Kalendar Shewing the different Products of each Month, and the Business proper to be done in it. II. Containing a large Collection of Receipts for dressing all Sorts of Kitchen Stuff, so as to afford a great Variety of cheap, healthful, and palatable Dishes. Designed for the Use of all who would live Cheap, and preserve their Health to old Age; particularly for Farmers and Tradesmen in the Country, who have but small Pieces of Garden Ground, and are willing to make the most of it. 1744 (you have to love those long titles!)
    Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery sounds like it might be the precursor of The Kitchen Garden Displayed. The book does seem to focus more on the health aspects of vegetables and the entire first half of the book is a guide for growing most of the vegetables used in the receipt section. But it does not contain a section on cheap meals, and tends to use sack in many of the dishes so I don’t think its focus is too much on the poor.
    I am enjoying exploring your site. Thanks!

  12. Grymm says:

    Wisdom Dictates (That’s the short title) by Thomas Tryon written in the late 17thC (1693 or 6) is a veggie cookbook, mind you to get to the 18pages of recipes you have to get past the 200 pages of Mr Tryon telling you why he(Actually a voice in his head he called The Voice of Wisdom) is right & you’re wrong.
    Still in print in the 18thC and read by one B.Franklin who was so impressed that he became veggie, at least for a bit, possibly until he started knocking around with Franky Dashwood & The Knights of Wycombe.

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