Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Nut Cutlet? Nut Roast?

"Two chops set before three people are productive of embarrassment," writes the narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, an Agatha Christie classic. "But Caroline is seldom daunted for long. With magnificent mendacity, she explained to Poirot that although James laughed at her for doing so, she adhered strictly to a vegetarian diet. She descanted ecstatically on the delights of nut cutlets (which I am quite sure she has never tasted) and ate a Welsh rarebit with gusto and frequent cutting remarks as to the dangers of 'flesh' foods." (p. 191)
Christie displays a tut-tut attitude towards nut cutlets and other vegetarian food. Such items were part of a health-food fad in the 1920s when this book takes place. When they want to enjoy themselves, her characters lean more towards a nice steak, such as the one at a lunch offered to a potential suitor in The Mystery of the Blue Train. And by the way, Caroline didn't fool Poirot, he could tell she was no vegetarian, but just making an excuse for the lack of an extra portion of meat for the unexpected lunch guest.

Nuts cutlets instead of veal chops? Vegetarians have been doing this for over a century. A nut cutlet recipe appears in the George Bernard Shaw Vegetarian Cookbook, based on this very famous vegetarian advocate's supposed favorite foods and published in the 1980s (adaptation here). The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook by Fania Lewando, recently translated from the original 1938 Yiddish edition, includes an entire selection of vegetarian cutlets, including nut cutlets made from ground walnuts, semolina porridge, breadcrumbs, eggs and butter. I think some of the vegan hamburger-like items in the freezer case at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's are the current equivalent of these older and less appealingly-named versions. These are the closest thing I've ever eaten to nut cutlets, I suspect.

The nut roast is currently more popular than nut cutlets, but the recipes are similar, and in my experience, both items are much more favored by the English and Australians than by Americans, even American vegans or vegetarians. Nut roasts are flavored to compliment the traditional side dishes for Sunday dinner or for Christmas dinner, allowing vegetarians or vegans, especially in England, to feel like part of the mainstream, I guess. For example, a nut roast photo appeared recently in the Christmas Dinner blog post of Johanna at Green Gourmet Giraffe from Australia; it was "served with roast potatoes, pumpkin and carrots, peas, cauliflower cheese and cranberry sauce."

My sole nut roast experience was a Sunday dinner at the Green Man restaurant in the small town of Grantchester, near Cambridge, England sometime in the 1990s (before Grantchester became a TV show). We were spending six weeks or so in Cambridge, and rode our bicycles along the Isis river to get there, remembering the famous people associated with the area such as Rupert Brooke, Bertrand Russell, and the brothers of Virginia Woolf. I quite liked the nut roast, which I think included small bits of carrot as well as cheese, so it was vegetarian, not vegan. I'd never heard of such a thing before, and I'm not that unfamiliar with American vegetarian options. It appeared on their online Christmas Dinner menu this year.

This photo from the Green Man website shows bicycles parked outside.
Unfortunately I can't find any of my own photos of Grantchester.

According to Felicity Cloake at the Guardian:
"If there's such a thing as pariah food – a recipe shunned by mainstream menus, mocked to near extinction and consigned to niche hinterlands for evermore – then the nut roast, a dish whose very name has become a watchword for sawdusty disappointment, is surely a strong contender. One of the darlings of the early vegetarian movement (particularly in its even sadder form, the cutlet), it was on the menu at John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium [sic], and has since become the default Sunday option for vegetarians – and a default source of derision for everyone else." (How to cook the perfect nut roast, December 14, 2011)
Google Images of "Nut Roast." Note frequent presence of brussels sprouts, indicating that they might be British.


~~louise~~ said...

Good morning Mae,
I was giggling to myself as I was reading this post because I can still remember the first time I ever actually saw a nut roast. Yes, indeed, it was at Johanna's blog. She made it sound so amazing and I was quite intrigued.

I even thought of trying my hand at making one since I've been trying to incorporate more healthy nuts in my diet. Perhaps the Nut Roast is the way to go...After all, I did bake up Black Bean Brownies which were surprisingly delicious:)

Thanks so much for sharing, Mae...

Jeanie said...

Nut cutlets? Who knew? I don't think I ever realized there was a Brit health food movement in the 30s. Well, now I'm incredibly curious!

Johanna GGG said...

How interesting that Agatha Christie mentioned nut cutlets - I actually just read an Agatha Christie book over christmas and was disappointed it hardly talked about food (Hercule Poirot's Christmas). And I made an historic nut roast years ago that I recently read was the first noted nut roast in cookbooks! I also recommend people try making nut roasts because I love them and seeing that you enjoyed your first I recommend you make one!