Eat and Grow Thin: Vance Thompson’s Mahdah Recipes

Vance Thompson hated his portly figure. So he set about devising a novel way to lose his excess poundage. He eschewed all starches, dairy products, spirits and sugars. Even fruit was scratched from the list of acceptable comestibles. On the eve of the Great War, and after meeting with great success on his own front (he lost the excess poundage), Thompson published a book on the subject, Eat and Grow Thin: The Mahdah Menus.

Eat and Grow Thin is a most compelling diet book. Thompson prefaces his collection of prudent yet tasty recipes with riveting accounts of the trials and tribulations suffered by those cursed with a surfeit of adipose flesh. He dwells longest on the life of fellow writer and critic G.K. Chesterton, who, Thompson says, “wearing a bracelet for a ring [Chesterton] is a subject for tears, not laughter — jest he never so waggishly!”

Chesterton’s situation is truly no laughing matter. These corpulent men, Thompson goes on to inform us, suffer terribly: “If one should sink a shaft down to his heart — or drive a tunnel through to it–one would discover that it is a sad heart, black with melancholy. Down there, deep under the billowy surface of the man, all is gloom.” Indeed, the overweight man cannot even indulge in love with dignity; while “fierce burn the fires of love within him,” Thompson writes, “the fiercer they burn the faster flees the terrified girl — for he looks like a vat of boiling oil; and that is a fearsome thing to fall into.” The lover, thwarted by his girth, is left to endure yet another evening alone: “So, wrapped in tallow, the poor lover goes his sebaceous way — wearing his maiden aunt’s bracelet for a ring.”

One might call Vance Thompson unjust, until it is remembered that he speaks with all the bitterness of a critic schooled in polite society’s more cruel humiliations. And with this in mind, the generosity with which he shares his fat-melting recipes compensates for whatever slings and arrows he hurls at the corpulent in Eat and Grow Thin. Take, for instance, his delightfully savory recipe for mutton dolmas, a recipe that a less generous cook would have stored away in darkest secrecy.

Serve Thompson’s mutton dolmas with a dry red wine and a nice rocket salad. If you wish to enjoy this dish without a shred of weight on your conscience, follow Thompson’s advice to “use very little butter, and no oil, fats or grease” in its preparation. And if you wish to curtail your consumption of inebriating liquids, hunt down Thompson’s Drink and Be Sober, which he published a year after Eat and Grow Thin.

Mutton Dolmas

Take the tender leaves of a young cabbage, place three or four together and fill with the following mixture:

Two pounds of raw mutton hashed through the meat-chopper, two large onions, one-half cup chopped parsley, salt and paprika. Stir in three beaten eggs, form the mixture into oblong meat balls, roll and tie in thinly-buttered cabbage leaves. Place the Dolmas in a bake dish in layers with a plate to press them down and keep in place. Cover with the stock of any meat and cook slowly one and a half hours. When done make a sauce of the juice with the yolks of eggs or simply pour over the Dolmas. The Dolmas are very good served with tomato sauce. A can of Campbell’s condensed tomatoes, to which has been added a boiled onion, finely chopped, and a bay leaf for flavor, makes an excellent and quickly prepared tomato sauce.

More Wartime Cooking: English Stew with Barley and Baked Samp

In her introduction to Two Hundred and Seventy-Five War-Time Recipes (1918), Carolyn Putnam Webber writes that the recipes in her book originally appeared “on the slips used at demonstration lectures,” but that she had assembled them for everyday use. She confesses that her recipes represent her belief that “true economy does not consist of going without but in making the most of what one has.” Expressing her conviction that frugal housekeepers in the United States represent a “volunteer army,” Webber adamantly stresses that their efforts can “help avoid rations or restricted diets and stabilize prices.”

Below are two recipes from Webber’s book. They can be served together, or as separate dinners. For the English stew, use whatever meat is most economical. And the samp for the baked samp recipe is not hard to find: Samp is the same thing as hominy, save that it is cracked into smaller pieces.

English Stew with Barley

1 lb mutton
4 potatoes sliced
2 tsp salt
2 onions
1/2 cup pearl barley
1 tsp chopped parsley

Cut meat in small pieces and brown with onions in fat from meat. Add barley and 2 quarts cold water. Simmer in covered dish 1 1/2 hours. Add potatoes and cook until potatoes are soft.

Baked Samp

2 c. boiled samp
1 tbsp. butter substitute
1/4 tsp paprika
1 cup grated cheese
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp salt

Arrange samp, cheese and seasoning in alternate layers. Add milk, put crumbs on top, bake 20 minutes.