I’ll be the first to admit it: when thinking about Edwardian English dinners, quinoa, brussels sprouts, and other vegan-friendly delicacies do not come to mind. Instead, we imagine various poultry and meat dishes drowning in cream. Having written The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, I admit it: you’re not wrong. Meat and cream ruled the table, especially if you were members of the upper class. Whether you sported a corset or a smoking jacket, if you were rich, you likely ate (lots of) meat and dairy.
Just as there was a social hierarchy in Edwardian England, the dining experience for the upper crust necessitated a hierarchy of dishes. The average meal, in fact, ranged from eight to thirteen courses in the order below:
1. Hors d’oeuvres (often oysters or caviar)
2. Two soups (one creamy, one clear)
3. Two kinds of fish (one boiled, one fried)
4. An entree.
5. Roast and salad
6. Vegetables (often cooked in butter)
7. A hot dessert
8. Ice cream and wafers
9. Fruit and cheese
10. Coffee and liqueurs.
Obviously, the above does not leave vegans a lot of options. Though there’s a few vegetable dishes that might suffice. For example, Mrs. Patmore’s Easy Roasted Parsnips from my cookbook.
Mrs. Patmore’s Easy Roasted Parsnips
YIELDS 4 SERVINGS
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch slices
1/3 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 teaspoons drained horseradish
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, salt and peper in a medium bowl. Toss the parsnips with the lemon and olive oil mixture in a large yet shallow roasting pan. Add the broth, cover with aluminum foil, and roast, stirring once or twice, until the parsnips are tender and the stock has evaporated or been absorbed, about 20-45 minutes. check often to avoid mushiness.
2. Combine the softened butter with the horseradish, brown sugar, maple syrup, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. Toss the warm parsnips with the herb butter and serve.
Us vegans would might had a somewhat easier time as members of the “downstairs” contingent. For example, Soupe à l’Oignon was considered a peasant dish because onions were easy for the poor to grow and eat. Below is an adapted version of the vegetarian (but not vegan) friendly recipe found in The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook:
Vegan Soupe à l’Oignon
YIELDS 4-6 SERVINGS
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine (not cooking wine)
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
2 tablespoons brandy
1 baguette, sliced
1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium dutch oven. Stir in onions, shallots, and garlic, followed by bay leaves and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until onions are mushy and caramelized, about 20 minutes.
2. Slowly pour in wine, then increase heat until mixture reaches a brief boil. Reduce heat and simmer until all the wine has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Discard bay leaves and thyme. Sprinkle flour over the onion mixture and stir, making sure heat is low so flour does not burn. Cook, stirring every 3-5 minutes, for 10 minutes.
3. Evenly pour in vegetable broth and brandy. Increase heat to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Season soup with salt and pepper. Season soup with salt and pepper. Serve with baguette.
Thanks to shows like Downton Abbey, the Edwardian and Victorian eras are often romanticized. But keep in mind that eating healthy was far less important (or even understood) than eating wealthy. Looks were everything. Women had to fit into corsets that crushed their ribs while remaining smiling. In fact, an aristocrat could not take a sip of wine at dinner unless a man was taking a sip of wine as well. Otherwise, she was a hussy. Or at least incredibly improper.
Us vegans spend a lot of time discussing how hard it is to be a vegan nowadays. Back then, it was downright impossible. This vegan, at least, is happy to be alive today. Even if that means a lack of pretty jewels and dresses. I’d rather have my quinoa– not to mention my right to vote– than all the riches in the world.
Photo: Sean Foneill; Bournemouth Virtual Museum; Emily Ansara Baines