Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Laurel

New York City, 

The Gobbler's Dream: Signing the “Vegetarian Pledge” (1904)

The Laurel was perhaps the best vegetarian restaurant in New York at the turn of the last century. Situated on West Eighteenth Street, a couple of blocks from Union Square, it was named after the bay laurel whose aromatic leaves were used in vegetarian cooking. Technically, it was a lacto-ovo vegetarian restaurant, as shown by the dairy products and egg dishes on the 1903 menu shown below. In addition to providing a wide selection of dishes, this menu offers tips on health and nutrition, along with quotes from the Bible and the Anglo-Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith.1 This daily menu, along with a banquet menu from the following year, reflect the foodways and philosophy of vegetarianism at a point when the movement was just beginning to re-emerge in the United States.

The hours of operation are revealing. The Laurel closed at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, well before sundown, and did not reopen again until Sunday morning. In other words, this vegetarian eatery could be used as a dairy restaurant by Sabbath-observant Jews, suggesting that the Jewish community may have played an important role in supporting vegetarianism in America at this early date. (The first vegetarian restaurants in New York opened the mid-1890s.)

Vegetarianism, which has roots going back to antiquity, surfaced in western countries during the mid-nineteenth century. The American Vegetarian Society was founded in 1850, just a few years after the word “vegetarian” was coined. After establishing a chapter in New York in 1852, the society planned to hold its "festival dinner" at the Chinese Assembly Rooms, a large hall situated at 539 Broadway, as shown by this admission ticket.2

Despite having distributed such tickets, the dinner in 1852 was cancelled. With their first meeting reduced to a series of speeches, the organizers tried to put a good face on the situation, promising that the event would be a “feast of reason.” However, such pronouncements only invited ridicule by the newspapermen who enjoyed mocking the vegetarians. Exercising some measure of journalistic restraint, the New York Times reported that the philosophical repast “was not as inviting as the pumpkin pies, melons, peaches, pears, grapes and apples that were first offered, if we may judge by the scant attendance." In fact, there were only fifty people who attended. Nevertheless, things went much better the following year. Hosted by newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the society's vegetarian dinner in 1853 attracted about 300 attendees, a group that included antebellum reformers like the socialists, abolitionists, and temperance advocates. The suffragettes Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Amelia Bloomer also came to this dinner; Two-thirds of the attendees that year were women.

The dinner in 1853 began with tomato and rice soup, followed by Graham bread, fruited bread, mixed-fruit cake, wheat cakes, corn blanc mange, apple biscuits, molded rice, molded farina, and molded wheat grits. There were only two vegetables—baked sweet potatoes and stewed squash with cream. However, there was a wide variety of fruit and many desserts like pumpkin pie, baked apples, coconut custard, and ice cream. Ironically, this successful banquet marked the end of the "first wave" of vegetarianism. After having inched forward for two decades, the vegetarian movement in the United States went into hibernation, slumbering until the end of the nineteenth century before it finally reawakened.3

By the time the Vegetarian Society held its dinner at the Laurel in 1904, such events were no longer considered newsworthy; the novelty of vegetarianism had worn off over the preceding fifty years. None of the dishes on the banquet menu shown below corresponds exactly to those on the Laurel's a la carte menu of the previous year. However, many of the dishes are similar, since both menus heavily rely on protose and nuttolene, the canned meat substitutes produced by Kellogg’s Sanitas Nut Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan. Protose was made with peanuts and wheat gluten; nuttolene, which appears on this banquet menu in the form of cutlets, was a baked peanut pâté that was sliced for cooking. Nut chowder, the first course served at this banquet, could be made with either one of these so-called “vegetable meats.” The other ingredients included chopped hard-boiled eggs, strained tomatoes, sauteed onions, thyme, sage, and bay leaves. Boiling water was poured over the mixture which was then thickened with flour.4

People now adopt a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons, including their religious beliefs, health concerns, and ethics. In 1904, one of the primary reasons was opposition to the killing of animals, a sentiment reflected by Goldsmith’s poem. Today, the number of issues encompassed by ethical vegetarianism has expanded to include issues related to the mass consumption of meat, such as the treatment of animals in factory farms, environmental damage, and the exacerbation of world hunger.

1. This verse by Goldsmith was taken from The Hermit, a ballad which he inserted in his 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield.
2. In 1859, the old Chinese Assembly Rooms, situated on lower Broadway near Spring Street, were converted into a concert saloon named the Melodeon. Featuring “pretty waiter girls,” watered-down drinks, and dancing, the Melodeon is often cited as one of the first nightclubs.
3. Karen Iacobbo, Vegetarian America: A History, 2004.
4. Edward Fulton, Substitutes for Flesh Foods: Vegetarian Cook Book, 1904.


ephemeralist said...

Fascinating post. The menu is a gem. What is mysterious to me, though, is why no cheese?

David Matthews said...


What you won't come up with next! This is delightful and a jewel of New York history. The mid 20th century New York I grew up in, had quite a number of truly superb vegetarian restaurants. In fact, I never encountered the same phenomena in Europe.

Jamin said...

This is indeed fascinating!! I can't wait to read it more thoroughly when I have some more time. Thank you for posting!!

andrea broomfield said...

I loved this menu! It was so lengthy with many excellent choices. Thanks for your explanations of meat substitutes produced by Kellogg's.

I thought I would share a menu that comes from the St. George's Cafe (in St. Martin's Lane), London, a vegetarian restaurant visited by the prominent critic, Nathaniel Newnham-Davis at the turn of the twentieth century:
Mulligatawny soup or Carrot soup
Flageolets with cream and spinach
Fried duck's egg and green peas
Lent pie or Stewed fruit
Mixed salad

Newnham-Davis' Hors-d'oeuvre consisted of some olives. He enjoyed the carrot soup, but found the spinach "not up to club form" and the flageolets "not inviting." He enjoyed the duck's egg that had been well fried. Newnham-Davis ate his salad, passed on the Lent Pie (not sure what that was) and the stewed fruits, and then finished off with Gruyere cheese, almonds, raisins and an orange. His meal cost 1 shilling, 6 pence--quite a modest price.

While Newnham-Davis was not overly impressed with the St. George's Cafe, he at least decided that it was important enough to visit and review for his column in the Pall Mall Gazette, and then later for his collection of restaurant reviews, Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Eat in London (1899, revised 1901).