The taste(less) timeline: bizarre recipes from history

illustration of assorted vegetables


‘Onion Custard’, ‘Carrot Fudge’ or ‘Savoury Eclairs’ anyone? I take a look back at the most bizarre veggie recipes from yesteryear…


Middle-Aged spread

Before the chefs of Richard II served up the phenomenally horrible chicken blancmange and porpoise porridge to his majesty, and before the Spanish brought us the humble potato, it seems most Medieval Britons had to make do with ‘wortes’ for dinner. According to several ancient cookbooks ‘Buttered Wortes’ – boiled with a little salt and pepper, with the tasty addition of one or two stale bread croutons – were all the rage in the Middle Ages. Thankfully, however, the ‘wortes’ were not witchy warts (or brewing worts for that matter) but simply an ancient name given to fresh herbs and greens – a summer salad: wortes and all.


A bad egg

While the Great Fire of London might have been caused by a case of baking-gone-bad, many 17th century recipes contained plain and plentiful bread at their centre alongside eggs and cheese. In the Excellent & Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery of 1658 – a cookbook that sounds more like a science textbook – a recipe for ‘Snow’ extols the virtues of mixing cream with egg whites (preferably with a “birchen rod”), whereby the bubbling foam is skimmed off and arranged on top of a penny loaf – all in all, to look like a “tree blanketed with snow”. But even this seems accomplished when compared with two bizarre 1691 recipes by Thomas Tryon, reproduced in Anne O’Connell’s Early Vegetarian Recipes, which certainly stretch the boundaries of what constitutes the culinary arts. The first: ‘One Egg or Two Beaten and Brewed in a Pint of Raw Milk’ is followed by a second entitled: ‘One Egg Broke into a Pint of Good Ale’, which when “brewed well together and eaten with bread makes a brave meal, and hath a vigorous and quick operation in the stomach; in the summer you may drink it or eat it cold with bread, but in the winter warm it”. Trouble would most definitely be brewing if you downed this little delight.


Greens around the gills

By the 1700s it seems everyone was trying to find interesting ways to cook their five (or is that 10?) a day. In Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery garden manual and cookbook, a recipe “To Fry Celery” suggests encasing the crunchy veg in a batter made of wine, egg yolk and flour – so far, so unappetizing – but later, the same book suggests a recipe for ‘Stuffed Whole Cabbage Head’, using all manner of leftovers including mushrooms, truffles and chives and…yet more cabbage. School dinner hell.


Beeton basics

The Victorians, of course, had the indomitable Mrs Beeton to put them on the culinary straight and narrow, but even she got her apron strings in a twist with a recipe for ‘Carrot Jam’ with lemons, almonds and brandy (not something you’d necessarily want to spread on your morning crumpet), and by 1860, in the Godey’s Lady’s Book, her fellow chefs had also come up with the idea of ‘Onion Custard’, mixing 10 or 12 fried onions with eggs, milk and nutmeg, which one can only hope wasn’t destined for the sweet trolley. But perhaps it would have been the perfect partner for a later recipe from Mary Pope’s Novel Dishes for Vegetarian Households that suggested combining 4oz cooked sprouts with breadcrumbs and herbs, which, with the help of a little egg, could be shaped into ‘Brussels Sprout Sausages’. Yum.


Culinary combat

Carrots were right back on the menu in wartime Britain too as the government propaganda machine rolled into action to get people to eat a nutritious diet on dwindling rations. Children were treated to ‘Carrot Fudge’ – grated, boiled carrot with orange essence – which was later superseded by ‘Crumb Fudge’, detailed in a Using up Leftovers pamphlet of 1946, which combined stale breadcrumbs with sugar, cocoa and orange essence. Crumbs! But even this was more palatable than the suggestions in A Salad A Day All Year Round leaflet of the same year, which outlined a recipe for ‘Cabbage Fruit Salad’ – mixing together three cups of finely shredded cabbage with chopped apple, pear, onion, carrot and mint. Not too bad you might think: a passable Waldorf? Not when combined with the suggested ‘Economical Salad Dressing’ (a name which really gets you salivating) that combines 2oz flour with 1tbsp sugar, 2tsp salt and 1pt milk, boiled and whisked to thicken, with the addition of 4tbsp vinegar.


Retro digest

From the 50s to the 70s, recipe books simply can’t get enough of gelatine, injecting everything with the stuff from ‘Blue Cheese Moulds’ and ‘Lime Jelly Cheese Salads’ to ‘Shrimp Trees’ (a kind of fishy topiary). As contemporaries of Fanny Craddock – Britain’s first TV chef, famous for bizarre concoctions such as roast pigeon on a bed of piped green-dyed mash – it’s hardly surprising, but vegetarians had it bad too. Fancy a ‘Banana Candle’? Simply drip mayonnaise down a peeled banana, pop a cherry on top, and arrange it like a wax candle to serve. Even in the first ‘serious’ veggie cookbook, Walter and Jenny Fliess’s Modern Vegetarian Cookery, there’s some real clangers. ‘Fried Cabbage Slices’ anyone? Or, perhaps, if you have guests coming, you can serve “sandwich fillings for cocktail parties” that come in the colours of the rainbow? Said fillings – a red one of ‘Mock Crab’: grated onion, cheese and tomato puree, and a white one of ground hazelnuts and onion – would surely have people moving on to Charades more quickly than anticipated. But then again, they also had ‘Savoury Eclairs’ to look forward to: choux pastry filled with mayonnaise coloured with beetroot or spinach juice!


Originally published in Cook Vegetarian

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