Tag Archives: housewives

Keeping up Appearances: Economy vs. Extravagance in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery

By Sophie Hill, with Rachel Rich

In their final year of study undergraduate at British universities produce a 10,000-word piece of original, primary source research, called the dissertation. It has been a great pleasure for me this year to supervise Sophie Hill’s dissertation. Sophie spent her year trawling through old recipes, and–I confess–reading them in more depth and detail then I often do. In the post below, Sophie focusses on how the content of recipe books aimed at middle-class housewives can be a perfect place to look for the tensions and contradictions involved in carving out an identity in a fast-changing world where reputations were often forged around the family dinner table. In choosing Mrs Acton’s book as her case study, Sophie helps to show that Mrs Beeton was not alone in creating this new genre of culinary writing which provided a script for respectable domesticity to the aspiring housewife.

Rachel


L0034889 Modern Cookery, Eliza Acton Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Spine details from Eliza Acton's 'Modern cookery.....' 1845 Modern cookery, in all its branches: reduced to a system of easy practice. For the use of private families / By Eliza Acton. Illustrated with numerous woodcuts Eliza Acton Published: 1845 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
The spine of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, 1845.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the culinary best-sellers of the past such as Hannah Glasses’ Art of Cookery (1747) had become increasingly outdated as a new market–with new needs–emerged for cookery books: the rising middle classes. Recipe books were increasingly aimed directly at this audience, such as Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845).

Acton was aware of the audience she was addressing, stating in the introduction:

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 skillfully 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 (p. viii).

Recipe books intended for the middle classes provided the focus for my dissertation, which examined three well-known Victorian cookbooks and how they each reflected their target audience.[1] I did this through a close reading of the recipes, the ingredients they required, and the assumption each author made about what sort of equipment women had in their kitchens. Doing this highlighted the expectations placed on the middle-class housewife to practice good household economy, while simultaneously demonstrating the wealth and status of her family.

This idea was particularly well-illustrated in Modern Cookery which contains copious recipes for cheap, economical family-dishes like ‘Irish Stew’ and ‘Potato Soup’ whilst at the same time providing instructions for numerous extravagant, dinner-party recipes such as ‘Salmon à la Genevese’ and the aptly named ‘Fancy Jellies’.

Wood-engraving of one of Acton’s “fancier” recipes – Orange Jellies in Modern Cookery, 1845. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Wood-engraving of one of Acton’s “fancier” recipes – Orange Jellies in Modern Cookery, 1845. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The tension between economy and extravagance made visible by the different types of recipes that Acton includes in Modern Cookery was further highlighted by the ingredients used in each case. The idea of ‘household economy’ had was a mainstream concept by the time that Acton’s book was published–and the use of leftovers in meals played a key part in this. Acton’s recipes frequently demand the middle-class housewife religiously reuse whatever was left from previous dishes. Her ever-so-frugal recipe for ‘Economical Turkey Soup’ is an excellent example of this, as she directs the reader to use the ‘remains of a roast turkey, even after they have supplied the usual mince and broil.’[2]

However, because the Victorian housewife was charged with displaying middle-class status within the home and since food could ‘communicate many things about those who offered it; from financial wealth to the possession of cultural capital’[3], it was only fitting that Acton’s “extravagant” recipes emphasize the use of the finest and freshest ingredients. After all, these were dishes designed to impress. This is particularly well demonstrated in recipes such as ‘Lobster Cutlets (A Superior Entree)’, which Acton notes is an ‘excellent and elegant dish’ and includes in its ingredients

a couple of fine fresh lobsters’, ‘good béchamel sauce’ and ‘three or four ounces of the freshest shrimps.[4]

As I concluded in my dissertation, the presence of both economical and extravagant recipes, as well as the ingredients used in these recipes, is reflective of a wider tension. On the one hand, there was  the need for the middle-class housewife to display the signs of her family’s wealth and social status, thus distinguishing them from the working classes. This was done by providing luxurious dinner-party spreads. But on the other hand, the middle-class housewife needed to maintain the household’s economy.

Crucially, however, the extent to which Acton’s middle-class housewife could throw such parties was arguably hampered by the reality of budget constraints. After all, the number of cheap, economical recipes in Modern Cookery emphasises that the housewife had to be cautious with the food budget during the week–especially if she had any hope of maintaining the facade of extravagance displayed through dinner parties!

[1] These include: Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845), Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife (1849) and Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861).

[2]  E. Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845: 1855). Re-printed with an introduction by Jill Norman (ed) London: Quadrille Publishing Limited, 2011, p. 33.

[3] R. Rich, Bourgeois Consumption. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011, p. 101.

[4] Acton, Modern Cookery (re-printed 2011),  p. 91.

A Ladies Home Journal in 18th-century Nottinghamshire, England

by Lisa M. Lillie

Tucked away in the Papers of the Mellish Family of Hodstock, Nottinghamshire, in the University of Nottingham’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collections, Lady Mellish’s “Old Accts dinners & c. 1706” sits rather unobtrusively among generations of Mellish family correspondence, account books, and estate ledgers. [1] Although the 17th century featured a shift in what were traditionally women’s professions such as beer-brewing and midwifery to the purview of men,[2] it still fell to the lady of an upper-middling home to coordinate the activities of her household members, manage the procurement and preparation of provisions, and arrange the entertainment of guests. Judging from Lady Mellish’s notes, the Mellish family entertained at least twice monthly. Particularly distinguished guests were cause for elaborate culinary preparations: for the visit of the “Duke of Leads” on the 12  September 1705, for example, she made “stued pidging, pees, goose, egge pyes, hanch of venison, revived Jupe tongue & chikins, whit frigeee, collered eale hot / Ducks & Partriges Peas, Damson Tart, Tansey Tueky, scollops” among other dishes! But the Mellishes most frequent visitors seem to have been gentry neighbor families – the Huetts, Garves, and Cliftons.

Historians of Tudor England have noted a late-16th century decline of the manor house as a place where the lord and his laborers could commune directly and do business; the gentry’s greater desire for privacy and separation from the laboring sorts meant architectural changes in the great manor homes: more private spaces for the family and greater distance between the servant’s and the family’s living quarters.[3] Lady Mellish’s account books contain floor plans of the family’s home as well as sketches of what appear to be table seating arrangements for dinner parties, indicating what appears to be Lady Mellish’s keen interest to use the resources at her disposal to strike just the right tone for social gatherings.

Frontispiece showing a domestic kitchen scene, from The housekeeper's instructor; or, universal family cook / Being an ample and clear display of the art of cookery in all its various branches..by William Augustus Henderson. Published ca. 1790. Henderson's success in this genre to some degree resonates with a larger early modern trend of men becoming experts in fields which were previously dominated by women, such Hannah Woolley's renown for housekeeping advice a century prior. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Frontispiece showing a domestic kitchen scene.  The housekeeper's instructor; or, universal family cook / Being an ample and clear display of the art of cookery in all its various branches. Containing proper directions for dressing all kinds of butcher's meat, poultry, game, fish ... To which is added, the complete art of carving, illustrated with engravings ... bills of fare for every month in the year ... / by William Augustus Henderson. 1790-1799 The housekeeper's instructor; or, universal family cook The housekeeper's instructor; or, universal family cook / W. A. Henderson Published: [between 1790 and 1799?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Frontispiece showing a domestic kitchen scene, from The housekeeper’s instructor; or, universal family cook / Being an ample and clear display of the art of cookery in all its various branches..by William Augustus Henderson. Published ca. 1790. Henderson’s success in this genre to some degree resonates with a larger early modern trend of men becoming experts in fields which were previously dominated by women, such Hannah Woolley’s renown for housekeeping advice a century prior. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Lady Mellish’s talent for household management would have no doubt pleased the preeminent lifestyle guru of the 17th century, Hannah Woolley.[4] While Lady Mellish was concerned with hosting smashing dinner parties, she showed no less interest in the less glamorous aspects of household affairs, namely that most useful of food preparation to early moderns – jarring and pickling. Her recipe for pickled salmon is straight-forward:

“Take your samon and wash it well then take 4 quarts of water and one quart of viniger putt it in to a sose pan and boil it and skim it well, sisen it with Mase and Clovs and peper and salt to you tass and 12 bay livs then putt in your samon boil it till it is anof a quarter and half of a hour a sid, then take your samon out and putt it in your pickels when it is cold, if it is to be kip long you must stop it up Clos. if thee samon is biger you must boil it half a hour if you want mor pickels you Must doe as bee for.”[5]

With the addition of savoury herbs such as cloves and bay leaf, Lady Mellish’s recipe seems far more palatable than that found in The Accomplish’d Lady’s, published in 1675, which instructed the reader to simply cover the salmon with vinegar and rosemary in an earthenware pot to keep “for a whole month”. [6]

Not only did Lady Mellish take notes on her gastronomic exploits, but she also kept a detailed account of all her expenses, as well as making alphabetical lists of words, seemingly at random. Also Included is an “Account of my Jewells March the 9th 1707.” In short, Lady Mellish’s papers would make for an interesting study on the role of gentry women in culinary history and in the changing social landscape of early modern England.

[1] University of Nottingham Rare Books and Manuscripts, Me 2E/1/1, Old Accts dinners & c. 1706. See also the National Archives’ Discovery entry on the Mellishes (accessed 4 July 2015).

[2] On the phenomenon of brewing and midwifery gradually becoming men’s professions, see Judith M. Bennet, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), and Michelle Dowd, Women’s World in early modern English Literature and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[3] For examples of scholarship on the transformation of early modern English domestic space, see Roger Chartier (ed), A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance (volume III), Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989; Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Amanda Vickery, “An Englishman’s Home Is His Castle? Thresholds, Boundaries and Privacies in the Eighteenth-Century London House,” Past and Present No. 199 (May, 2008), pp. 147-173.

[4] By the turn of the century, Wolley’s publications had secured her international reputation as a household management expert. See “Wolley, Hannah (b. 1622?, d. in or after 1674),” John Considine in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, see online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP, 2004 (accessed July 9, 2015).

[5] University of Nottingham Rare Books and Manuscripts, Me 2E/1/1, Old Accts dinners & c. 1706.

[6] Hannah, Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers …, II. the physical cabinet, or, excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery : together with some rare beautifying waters, to adorn and add loveliness to the face and body : and also some new and excellent secrets and experiments in the art of angling, 3. the compleat cooks guide, or, directions for dressing all sorts of flesh, fowl, and fish, both in the English and French mode… (London: 1675), 297. In the ODNB entry on Hannah Woolley, John Considine maintains that this work was not actually written by Woolley; rather, it was one of several copy-cat publications design to replicate the success of her work. Early English Books online, however, attributes the work to Woolley.