I love to teach with Isabella Beeton. Her biography and her opus, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) confound several popular stereotypes about gender, middle-class Victorians and British foodways. The book is important for studying the development of the modern cookbook and recipe and reveals the international context that produced national cuisines in the nineteenth century. My students at University of California often imagine that “British cuisine” is an oxymoron. Except for a good cup of tea, the popular conception of British food is that of overcooked, bland vegetables and simple roasted meats. One look at Household Management dispels all such myths.
I first introduce students to the book itself. At over 1,000 pages, it is huge. I bring in an old edition available in my university library, but it is now available in full via Project Guttenberg. There are also useful background essays for students and instructors on the British Library website and via BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History. I first ask students to examine how the recipes are written, arranged, to look at what ingredients and tools are used, and finally what is in the book beyond the recipes. They notice right away, for example, that the first line compares the Mistress of the house “with the Commander of an Army” (7). We talk about what or who the housewife is “fighting;” who her soldiers might have been, and why Mrs. Beeton used a masculine metaphor while addressing a largely female audience. This opens a discussion of the complicated nature of the mistress-servant relationship, particularly surrounding foodwork, and this leads to a broader discussion of domesticity, gender and class identity.
I then ask students to make a list of adjectives they would use to describe Mrs. Beeton. They invariably come up with terms like old, solid, stocky, severe and tell me she must have been an aging Victorian cook, likely from a large aristocratic home (such as that they have seen in television series such as Downtown Abbey). They are surprised to find that Mrs. Beeton was in her mid-twenties when she wrote Household Management and that she was a fashionable and modern (by the standards of the day) woman married to a very successful journalist. Among other important texts, Samuel Beeton brought out the first English edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He published mass-market magazines for children; and, with his wife he published the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (started in 1852), one of the first inexpensive women’s magazines for the growing middle-class female market. We talk then about the standardization and commercialization of culinary literature.
I assign several recipes from Mrs. Beeton, but in my upper division, food and world history course I especially like to use the recipe for “Mango Chetney” (124). The recipe, Mrs. Beeton tells us, “was given by a native to an English lady, who had long been resident in India, and who, since her return to her native country, has become quite celebrated amongst her friends for the excellence of this Eastern relish (124).” This passage opens up a discussion about race, gender, and how food knowledge travelled between metropole and colony. We discuss how “Eastern” tastes were surprisingly acknowledged, absorbed, shared and celebrated by middle-class women just a few years after the “Indian Mutiny.” At the same time Mrs. Beeton published her guide, the same middle class readers were being inundated with frightening tales of the dangers of the East, particularly for white women. This leads students to contemplate the complex but everyday nature of the Empire and the way that cooking and dietary might have been considered a way that women in particular participated in the colonial project.
We then look at the ingredients. Mrs. Beeton is very precise, with the ingredient list right at the top: 1 ½ lbs. of moist sugar, 3/4 lb. of salt, ¼ lb. of garlic, ¼ lb. of onions, ¾ lb. of powdered ginger, ¼ lb. of dried chilies, ¾ lb. of mustard-seed, ¾ lb. of stoned raisins, 2 bottles of best vinegar, 30 large unripe sour apples. Students are struck by the ample amount of onions, garlic, ginger, mustard and chilies, salt, and sugar. We think about the supposed British distaste for spices in the modern period and talk about how spices might be used differently (or similarly) than in the Middle Ages. It is about this time that someone notices that “Mango Chetney” has apples not mangoes, and this leads to a discussion about adaptation, availability, trade, grocery shopping and authenticity.
We next turn to the “mode” of cooking, which involves a lot of pounding and drying of the spices, peeling, coring and chopping, and simmering everything until it is thoroughly blended. The concoction is then stored in bottles, corked and tied with a “wet bladder.” Finally, Mrs. Beeton tells us that “this chetney is very superior to any which can be bought, and one trial will prove it to be delicious” (124). Students are struck by the apparent contradiction between the use of the wet bladder and the large amount of work involved, which they see as old fashioned, and the fact that clearly there are at least several types of chetney for sale. Mrs. Beeton is thus advising the use of homemade as superior to store bought. I ask students whether they think this is a modern recipe, or a rejection of “modernity,” or both. This leads to a discussion of what precisely modernity might mean.
Finally, just when students start rethinking the nature of British cooking, Mrs. Beeton starts talking about “Garlic.” Next to the recipe she writes a brief history, but begins: “the smell of the plant is generally considered offensive and it is the most acrimonious in its taste of the whole of the alliaceous tribe” (124). We then learn that garlic was introduced into England from the Mediterranean in 1548, and was “in greater repute with our ancestors than it is with our selves, although it is still used as a seasoning herb. On the continent, especially it Italy, it is much used, and the French consider it an essential in many dishes” (124). Here we see how a national “British” cuisine emerged through the process of dissociation and absorption with continental Europe and the Empire. Invariably someone wants to start researching the history of garlic, Victorian chutney brands, and recipes for curry and Indian food in Britain.[i]
[i] Some helpful books on this include, Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Anita Mannur, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010) and Krishnedu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas, ed. Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
Erika Rappaport is an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (Princeton UP, 2000) and many articles on gender, consumption and middle-class culture in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. She is on the editorial board of Gastronomica and an associate editor of the Journal of British Studies. She recently co-edited Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Britain (Bloomsbury 2015) and is completing a major book on the history of tea that explores the connections between imperialism, consumerism, foodways and globalization from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The book is tentatively titled, An Acquired Taste: Tea in the Age of Empire (Princeton, forthcoming).