So I was looking through a few British and American cookery books from the early years of the modern vegetarian movement, and good lord were their recipes bland. A recipe for pureed lentils in E.E. Kellogg’s Science in the Kitchen, for example, is exactly that: lentils, pureed, without the slightest bit of seasoning (which Mrs. Kellogg deemed too “stimulating,” a reflection of the Kelloggs’ shared terror for the evils of sexual desires they thought stoked by the consumption of anything remotely savory). So I’ve decided to pull instead from my own archives a favorite recipe of my own devising along with a bit of tenuously related history from further afield geographically.
After a few typically tortured years of experimentation with various diets, the Russian author Tolstoy in the latter decades of the nineteenth century began to advocate for ethical vegetarianism. By chance, Tolstoy’s writings ended up in the hands of one Peter Verigen, the leader of the Doukhobors, a minority religious sect that rejected the organizational church, the inspiration of the Bible, and the divinity of Christ, preaching instead a direct, unmediated relationship with the divine.
Through Verigen’s admonishment, inspired as he was by Tolstoy’s belief in vegetarianism and non-violence, the Doukhobors likewise rejected the consumption of meat and the bearing of arms. In June of 1895, the Doukhobors gathered to pray, worship, and commit whatever weapons they owned to the bonfire. To the Russian authorities, however, the refusal to kill was apparently a seditious act. As Colin Spencer breathlessly describes in The Heretic’s Feast, “Cossacks were sent to ‘restore order’; they arrived at a gallop, circled the unfortunate worshippers and beat them with nagayki whips until they had disfigured them. Then, by administrative order, the Dukhobors’ lands were confiscated and their houses pillaged. Four thousand of them were exiled to the mountain villages, and their leaders were put in prison.”
Tolstoy, when he heard word of the Doukhobors’ persecution, was incensed, and began a campaign to fund their emigration from Russia, including contributing himself the whole of the proceeds from his novel Resurrection. With the help of his followers, a group of British Quakers, and other Russian luminaries including anarchist Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy was able to help facilitate their relocation to Canada, where nearly 4,000 individuals still claim “Doukhobor” as their religion and perhaps more than 20,000 of Doukhobor descent continue to live.
Janet Barkas, in The Vegetable Passion: A History of the Vegetarian State of Mind describes how the Doukhobors’ relationship to food was integrated in their spiritual life: “each religious meeting began with a large loaf of bread, a jug of water, and a dish of fruit on the table. They eat their meals with hand-carved wooden spoons, often starting with a dish of cabbage and borscht, mixed with cream.” Now, my own bastardized vegan borscht recipe probably bears only the most tenuous resemblance to Doukhobor fare (or to any of the number of regional borscht variations that exist), but I think it nonetheless tasty but refreshingly simple food, perfect for anytime you want something hearty to eat while contemplating the philosophy of not killing humans and other animals:
1 large carrot, sliced
1 large parsnip, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 medium beet roots, sliced
2 tablespoons vegan margarine
2 cubes vegetable bouillon and 4 cups water OR
4 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 lemon, juice
Salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Fresh dill and vegan sour cream to garnish
Fry the onions and garlic in the margarine for a couple minutes. Add the beet roots, carrot, and parsnip, turn them in the margarine, and let them sweat a couple more minutes. Add the stock (or water and bouillon), and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for forty minutes or until tender.
Remove from heat, add lemon juice, and in batches, puree in food processor. Add salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste. Serve in bowls and garnish with vegan sour cream and fresh dill.