Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/The Chemistry of Cookery XXIII




IN my introductory paper I said, "The fact that we use the digestive and nutrient apparatus of sheep, oxen, etc., for the preparation of our food is merely a transitory barbarism, to be ultimately superseded when my present subject is sufficiently understood and applied to enable us to prepare the constituents of the vegetable kingdom to be as easily assimilated as the prepared grass which we call beef and mutton."

This has brought me in communication with a very earnest body of men and women, who at considerable social inconvenience are abstaining from flesh-food, and doing it purely on principle. Some people sneer at them, call them, "crotchety," "faddy," etc., but for my own part I have a great respect for crotchety people, having learned long ago that every first great step that has ever been taken in the path of human progress was denounced as a crotchet by those it was leaving behind. This respect is quite apart from the consideration of whether I agree or disagree with the crotchets themselves.

I therefore willingly respond to the request that I should devote one short paper of this series to the subject. The fact that there are now in London nine exclusively vegetarian restaurants, and all of them flourishing, shows that it is one of wide interest.

At the outset it is necessary to brush aside certain false issues that are commonly raised in discussing this subject. The question is not whether we are herbivorous or carnivorous animals. It is perfectly certain that we are neither. The carnivora feed on flesh alone, and eat that flesh raw. Nobody proposes that we should do this. The herbivora eat raw grass. Nobody suggests that we should follow their example.

It is perfectly clear that man can not be classed either with the carnivorous animals nor the herbivorous animals, nor with the graminivorous animals. His teeth are not constructed for munching and grinding raw grain, nor his digestive organs for assimilating such grain in this condition.

He is not even to be classed with the omnivorous animals. He stands apart from all as The Cooking Animal.

It is true that there was a time when our ancestors ate raw flesh, including that of each other.

In the limestone caverns of this and other European countries we find human bones gnawed by human teeth, and split open by flint implements for the evident purpose of extracting the marrow, according to the domestic economy of the period.

The shell-mounds that these prehistoric bipeds have left behind show that mussels, oysters, and other mollusca were also eaten raw, and they doubtless varied the menu with snails, slugs, and worms, as the remaining Australian savages still do. Besides these they probably included roots, succulent plants, nuts, and such fruit as then existed.

There are many among us who are very proud of their ancient lineage, and who think it honorable to go back as far as possible, and to maintain the customs of their forefathers; but they all seem to draw a line somewhere, none desiring to go as far back as to their interglacial trogloditic ancestors, and therefore I need not discuss the desirability of restoring their dietary.

All human beings became cooks as soon as they learned how to make a fire, and have all continued to be cooks ever since.

We should, therefore, look at this vegetarian question from the point of view of prepared food, which excludes nearly all comparison with the food of the brute creation. I say "nearly all," because there is one case in which all the animals that approach the nearest to ourselves—the mammalia—are provided naturally with a specially prepared food, viz., the mother's milk. The composition of this preparation appears to me to throw more light than anything else upon this vegetarian controversy, and yet it seems to have been entirely over-looked.

The milk prepared for the young of the different animals in the laboratory or kitchen of Nature is surely adapted to their structure as regards natural food requirements. Without assuming that the human dietetic requirements are identical with either of the other mammals, we may learn something concerning our approximation to one class or another by comparing the composition of human milk with that of the animals in question.

I find ready to hand in Dr. Miller's "Chemistry," Vol. III., a comparative statement of the mean of several analyses of the milk of woman, cow, goat, ass, sheep, and bitch. The latter is a moderately carnivorous animal, nearly approaching the omnivorous character commonly ascribed to man. The following is the statement:

Woman. Cow. Goat. Ass. Sheep. Bitch.
Water 88·6 87·4 82·0 90·5 83·6 66·3
Fat 2·6 4·0 4·5 1·4 4·5 14·8
Sugar and soluble salts 4·9 5·0 4·5 6·4 4·2 2·9
Nitrogenous compounds and insoluble salts 3·9 3·6 9·0 1·7 5·7 16·0

According to this it is quite evident that Nature regards our food requirements as approaching much nearer to the herbivora than to the carnivora, and has provided for us accordingly.

If we are to begin the building-up of our bodies on a food more nearly resembling the herbivora than the carnivora, it is only reasonable to assume that we should continue on the same principle.

The particulars of the difference are instructive. The food which Nature provides for the human infant differs from that provided for the young carnivorous animal, just in the same way as flesh-food differs from the cultivated and cooked vegetables and fruit within easy reach of man.

These contain less fat, less nitrogenous matter, more water, and more sugar (or starch, which becomes sugar during digestion) than animal food.

Those who advocate the use of flesh-food usually do so on the ground that it it is more nutritious, contains more nitrogenous material and more fat than vegetable food. So much the worse for the human being, says Nature, when she prepares food.

But as a matter of practical fact there are no flesh-eaters among us, none who avail themselves of this higher proportion of albuminoids and fat. We all practically admit every day, in eating our ordinary English dinner, that this excess of nitrogenous matter and fat is bad; we do so by mixing the meat with that particular vegetable which contains an excess of the carbo-hydrates (starch) with the smallest available quantity of albuminoids and fat. The slice of meat, diluted with the lump of potato, brings the whole down to about the average composition of a fairly-arranged vegetarian repast. When I speak of a vegetarian repast, I do not mean mere cabbages and potatoes, but properly selected, well-cooked, nutritious vegetable food. As an example, I will take Count Rumford's No. 1 soup, already described, without the bread, and in like manner take beef and potatoes without bread. Taking original weights, and assuming that the lump of potato weighed the same as the slice of meat, we get the following composition, according to the table given by Pavy, page 410:

Water. Albumen. Starch. Sugar. Fat. Salts.
Lean beef 72·00 19·30 . . . . . . . . 3·60 5·10
Potatoes 75·00 2·10 18·80 3·20 0·20 0·70
14·70 21·40 18·80 3·20 3·80 5·80
Mean composition of mixture 73·50 10·70 9·40 1·60 1·90 2·90

Rumford's soup (without the bread afterward added) was composed of equal measures of peas and pearl-barley, or barley-meal, and nearly equal weights. Their percentage composition as stated in above-named table is as follows:

Water. Albumen. Starch. Sugar. Fat. Salts.
Peas 15·00 23·00 55·40 2·00 2·10 2·50
Barley-meal 15·00 6·30 69·40 4·90 2·40 2·00
30·00 22·30 134·80 6·90 4·50 4·50
Mean composition of mixture 15·00 14·65 62·40 3·45 2·25 2·25

Here, then, in one hundred parts of the material of Rumford's half-penny dinner, as compared with the "mixed diet," we have forty per cent more of nitrogenous food, more than six and a half times as much carbo-hydrate in the form of starch, more than double the quantity of sugar, about seventeen per cent more of fat, and only a little less of salts (supplied by the salt which Rumford added). Thus the John Bull materials fall short of all the costly constituents, and only excel by their abundance of very cheap water.

This analysis supplies the explanation of what has puzzled many inquirers, and encouraged some sneerers at this work of the great scientific philanthropist, viz., that he found that less than five ounces of solids was sufficient for each man's dinner. He was supplying far more nutritious material than beef and potatoes, and therefore his five ounces was more satisfactory than a pound of beef and potatoes, three fourths of which is water, for which water John Bull pays a shilling or more per pound when he buys his prime steak.

Rumford added the water at pump-cost, and, by long boiling, caused some of it to unite with the solid materials (by the hydration I have described), and then served the combination in the form of porridge, raising each portion to nineteen and three quarters ounces.

I might multiply such examples to prove the fallacy of the prevailing notions concerning the nutritive value of the "mixed diet," a fallacy which is merely an inherited epidemic, a baseless physical superstition.

I will, however, just add one more example for comparison—viz., the Highlander's porridge. The following is the composition of oat-meal—also from Pavy's table:

Water 15·00 Sugar 5·40
Albumen 12·60 Fat 5·60
Starch 58·40 Salts 3·00

Compare this with the beef and potatoes above, and it will be seen that it is superior hi every item excepting the water. This deficiency is readily supplied in the cookery.

These figures explain a puzzle that may have suggested itself to some of my thoughtful readers—viz., the smallness of the quantity of dry oatmeal that is used in making a large portion of porridge. If we could, in like manner, see our portion of beef or mutton and potatoes reduced to dryness, the smallness of the quantity of actually solid food required for a meal would be similarly manifest. An alderman's banquet in this condition would barely fill a breakfast-cup.

I can not at all agree with those of my vegetarian friends who denounce flesh-meat as a prolific source of disease, as inflaming the passions, and generally demoralizing. Neither am I at all disposed to make a religion of either eating or drinking, or abstaining. There are certain albuminoids, certain carbo-hydrates, certain hydrocarbons, and certain salts demanded for our sustenance. Excepting in fruit, these are not supplied by Nature in a fit condition for our use. They must be prepared. Whether we do all the preparation in the kitchen by bringing the produce of the earth directly there, or whether, on account of our ignorance and incapacity as cooks, we pass our food through the stomach, intestines, blood-vessels, etc., of sheep and oxen, as a substitute for the first stages of scientific cookery, the result is about the same as regards the dietetic result. Flesh-feeding is a nasty practice, but I see no grounds for denouncing it as physiologically injurious.

In my youthful days I was on friendly terms with a sheep that belonged to a butcher in Jermyn Street. This animal, for some reason, had been spared in its lambhood, and was reared as the butcher's pet. It was well known in St. James's by following the butcher's men through the streets like a dog. I have seen this sheep steal mutton-chops and devour them raw. It preferred beef or mutton to grass. It enjoyed robust health, and was by no means ferocious.

It was merely a disgusting animal, with excessively perverted appetite; a perversion that supplies very suggestive material for human meditation.

My own experiments on myself, and the multitude of other experiments that I am daily witnessing among men of all occupations who have cast aside flesh-food after many years of mixed diet, prove incontestably that flesh-food is quite unnecessary; and also that men and women who emulate the aforesaid sheep to the mild extent of consuming daily about two ounces of animal tissue combined with six ounces of water, and dilute this with such weak vegetable food as the potato, are not measurably altered thereby so far as physical health is concerned.

On economical grounds, however, the difference is enormous. If all Englishmen were vegetarians, the whole aspect of the country would be changed. It would be a land of gardens and orchards, instead of gradually reverting to prairie grazing-ground as at present. The unemployed miserables of our great towns, the inhabitants of our union workhouses, and all our rogues and vagabonds, would find ample and suitable employment in agriculture. Every acre of land would require three or four times as much labor as at present, and feed five or six times as many people.

No sentimental exaggeration is demanded for the recommendation of such a reform as this.

I must apologize for this digression, as it has prevented me from closing this series with this paper, as I intended. In my next, which really will conclude, I shall describe some experiments I have recently made on the preparation of vegetable food.—Knowledge.