Category Archives: Rachel Rich

To dine at Kew: The meals of George III and his household

By Rachel Rich

Lately I’ve been thinking about whether the kitchen at Kew, c. 1789, should be considered as a domestic space or a public one. The reason this has been on my mind is because I’ve been working with Lisa Smith and Adam Crymble on a project we’ve provisionally called ‘The King’s Dinner.’ Thanks to the Steward at Kew, who kept a detailed ledger of all the meals served during the King’s time in residence there between 1789 and 1797, we know everything that made it to the twelve separate tables in the Palace, every day at dinner time. This rich source may not exactly tell us what each person ate or how much, and it doesn’t say much about how the meals were ordered and selected. But it is the closest I feel I’ve ever come to being able to witness a household’s eating from the past.

James Gillray, Anti-saccharites, -or- John Bull and his family leaving off the use of sugar (1792). Depicts the royal family at a frugal tea-table. Source: British Museum, London.

I’m thinking about whether to consider these meals as public or private because of what other questions that might lead me to ask. Should I be considering what the George III menus tell us about domestic eating habits in the late eighteenth century? I can see that the names of the dishes are in the fashionable style of contemporary English cooking which gave French names to reliably familiar English meals.

And I can see that there was a version here of the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy, even if it was on a much grander scale. It makes sense to me to think about how food was used to encode social relations within homes where master and servant ate food produced in the same kitchens, and from the same supply chains, while marking our hierarchy through the relative degree of elaboration that went into the dishes served at the different tables.

Anonymous, Farmer G-e, studying the wind and weather (1771). Source: British Museum, London.

If, however, I start to think of the Palace less as a private home and more as a public—or at least semi-public—institution, then I think about the scale on which things were done, and what that meant about labour, organization, and time management. Food is very time sensitive in many ways. There is the question of seasons, and of eating the right produce when it is at its best. This may have mattered to King George, whose keen interest in agriculture had gained him the nickname Farmer George. In the coming months I am hoping to look carefully at the vegetables that were served in each month, and about how important seasonality was at the Royal table.

Food is also time sensitive because of the time it takes to cook each dish. All foods can be ruined through over cooking, while some foods are also dangerous if undercooked. Kitchen staff needed to know about timing, and given the difficulty of calculating cooking times with their contemporary cooking technologies, I assume they employed a combination of modern time management with more traditional sense-time for measuring the readiness of dishes.

Finally, food is time bound in that meals eaten communally need to be ready at the appointed time, and everyone who is sharing a table needs to know at what time they ought to make an appearance, if they are to share the meal. With twelve tables to serve, how did each dish reach the right table at the right time? Thinking about the management of the ‘home’ that was Kew Palace seems to offer a wonderful opportunity for thinking about how food timing shaped the operation of a semi-public institution with many inhabitants from across the social spectrum.

There were twelve daily dinners served at Kew each day including their Majesties’ Dinner, the Equerries dinner, dinner for various pages, grooms, and kitchen staff. Social hierarchy marked out who could share a table, but also the amount of food that was served, and the diversity of dishes. For their majesties, an elaborate meal was always prepared.  On 6 December 1789, the dinner was comprised of:

Soupe Sante, 4 chickens, tendrons of lamb; mutton cotellets; Emince of Pullets; 71/2 Veal Collops; a haunch of venison; 2 large soles; a leg of Portland mutton; 83/4 muttons; Richmond duck; Capon; 3 pigs trotters; asparagus; potted meat; Genoise; ¾ prawns; celery and pomme de terre.

It was a lot of food—but I don’t exactly know who was sitting at the table, so I don’t know how much of it was specifically designated as surplus food. This is one of many questions I have been considering over the last few days.

This is the first in a series of posts in which Lisa, Adam and I are planning to explore this amazing source from a range of different angles. In this way we hope to develop ideas about national identity, class, and domestic labour, health, and nutrition, in relation to a unique household which was at once completely different from, but also emblematic of, all the other household in Britain.

Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377

The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns’ and the number or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skilfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.


[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111

History of Food and Medicine

This just in from contributors Rachel Rich and Sara Pennell…

The book of household management by Mrs Beeton Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The book of household management by Mrs Beeton
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Check out their virtual issue of Social History of Medicine onFood the Forgotten Medicine’.  What is a virtual issue? Well, as guest editors for an online-only issue of SHM, they have compiled a collection of articles from the journal’s archives on food and medicine. But best of all, they’ve  written a wonderful introduction to the subject. It’s a really good special issue.

Go now. The virtual issue is completely free, but only available until September 2016!