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Christmas Dinner at the San (and the rise of Protose)

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

A pinch of...umm?

A table presumably set at an Adventist Sanitarium

Christmas dinner was something of a balancing act for Adventist health advocates at the turn of the twentieth century. Mahlon Ellsworth Olsen wrote that

Two or three good, wholesome dishes nicely prepared, eaten with plenty of cheerful conversation, carefully chewed to get all the nourishment and exquisite natural flavors out of them, and the table left before one has taken all he can—this is what we should call ideal Christmas dining. [source]

One can tell a number of things from Olsen, a son of former general conference president Ole Andres Olsen, from this statement. He was thorough and seemed to enjoy shaping language ("exquisite natural flavors"!). Healthy living was his first intellectual love in Adventism (he would go on to have many others), and he took to the problem of holiday eating with admirable equanimity—even if by today's standards, "Christmas Dining Without Indigestion" isn't a headline that would make us run to the newsstand to read it.

Olsen, who founded (with his older brother) the British version of the church's health paper, Good Health, wanted to do more than remind Adventists how they ought to be eating, took it a step further by contacting a sanitarium in England to get an idea as to what an "ideal" Christmas dinner might look like.

I muscatel you a story

Turns out, Christmas dinner at the San in 1904 isn't too different from what Adventists eat today: potatoes, veggie meat, and some kind of vegetables. Although... ewww, Brussels sprouts.

It's hard to find an Adventist holiday menu without Protose, a gluten, cereal, and peanut butter concoction that came out of John Harvey Kellogg's stewardship of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Kellogg was an early adopter of the new mail-order method of business being pioneered by Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears. By offering Sanitarium food directly to customers, Kellogg could cut out the middle man (the local general store) and so offer them a significant savings. (Basically, it was the end-around method Amazon would later perfect with e-commerce.) By 1914, Kellogg had sold more than 144,000 pounds of Protose, making it the first popular meat substitute in history. It was followed at a distance by its sister products like Nuttolene (33,000 pounds) and Nuttose (6,000 pounds) and was about 15% cheaper than comparable meat products.

Protose meals as prescribed by the Sanitarium's head dietician, Lenna Frances Cooper in "The New Cookery" (1914)

Adam Shprintzen, a historian of 19th century America and author of a history of vegetarianism, took it upon himself to resurrect Protose during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shprintzen reported that his resurrected Protose was bland, but "was texturally satisfying" and "filled our apartment with a small that can best be described as vaguely chicken-adjacent."

Adam Shprintzen's attempt a Protose. Looks like Special K loaf.

Of course, as this menu from the Pacific Health Journal in 1903 shows, there were other options, like "mock white fish" and "vegetarian turkey." Even during Ellen White’s lifetime, Adventists had an affection for meat substitutes.

Holiday Menu from the Pacific Health Journal (1903)
The 1905 menu from Good Health (UK)

Even when Protose wasn’t a main feature, it was often present in more subtle ways. The “stuffed onions” in the 1905 menu in Good Health (UK) were stuffed with, you guessed it, Protose and bread.

Nor do these menus seem what we might consider particularly healthy today, although, compared to the diet of the general population, we could give these Adventists a pass. It is easy to see why Adventist health leaders were constantly encouraging church members to not over-indulge. The looming threat of a carb coma was real.

The 1901 menu from Good Health (UK)

Mary White, Ellen White's daughter-in-law, noted in a letter to her husband that their friends had stopped by a hotel for a Christmas dinner and one of them "was sick nearly all the night." Mary then admitted that "even our Christmas dinner gave me the sick headache which lasted a good part of the night."

Modern meat substitutes from Impossible and Beyond have clearly changed succeeded in the mission of approximating the taste of meat. I haven't tried to recreate Protose, but I'd wager that it cannot taste more like meat than an Impossible burger or a Beyond sausage. But these modern meat substitutes have also failed where first-generation products like Protose succeeded: they are neither cheaper nor (arguably) healthier than the meat they are replacing.

I marvel at how far we have come since the days of Protose. And yet I also wonder if we've progressed at all. The search for a delicious, inexpensive, healthy meat substitute for the good of the world continues, and Protose may actually have been the closest we've come toward realizing that dream.


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