Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!

 


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