Room for Food, Spaces for Eating

Participants engaging with a wide range of nineteenth-century cookbooks held at the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections. Photo Credit: FEAST online journal.
Participants engaging with a wide range of nineteenth-century cookbooks held at the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections. Photo Credit: FEAST online journal.

By Rachel Rich

Good food brings people together around a table, and apparently so too does the opportunity to look at good cookbooks. On Saturday April 16th, Catherine Bertola and I co-hosted a workshop organized by online journal FEAST and the Manchester Metropolitan University Library’s Special Collections. We had invited immersed ourselves in the Special Collection’s newly acquired Home Studies Collection, which contains several hundred books on cooking, nutrition, domestic economy and related topics. On the day of the workshop, twenty or so people gathered around a table on which I had placed several editions of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, as well as books by Charles Elme Francatelli, Alexis Soyer, Eliza Acton and many lesser know cookery cookery authors who wrote in the nineteenth century. I talked for about half on hour about the collection, the books, and my own research, after which we spent 30 minutes looking at and discussing the books in a more hands-on way. My hour was followed by an hour during which Catherine presented her work, and discussed her art as a response to the books in the collection.

I started with a general discussion about cookbooks, linked to the workshop’s title ‘Room for Food, Spaces for Eating’. I argued that we should consider the domestic dining room as two spaces sharing the same place. The dining room can be both a private space for intimate family gatherings, and a public space through which a family forges and maintains its community bonds and networks. I urged participants to observe that each book contains recipes for both simple, affordable meals and more elaborate and impressive once. Women are urged to play two parts, of the frugal holder of the purse strings, and the conspicuous consumer who displays the family’s success, two personae which must not have sat easily together.

From here we went on to discuss how cookbooks are introduced, and the very peculiar ways that author’s formulate their introductions and address their imagined audiences. In The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness (1803) the author, John Armstrong wrote:

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.

The preface to another book began:

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 of its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man. [1]

Eliza Acton was equally earnest about the task at hand, putting the fate of civilization itself in the hands of young homemakers:

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.

Colin Mackenzie made extraordinary claims for the usefulness of cookbooks:

In truth, the present volume has been compiled under the feeling, that if all other books of Science in the world were destroyed, this single volume would be found to embody the results of the useful experience, observations, and discoveries of mankind during the past ages of this world.[2]

This last example led to a discussion of the importance of the concepts of science, rationality and modernity in nineteenth-century cookbooks. Victorians’ commitment to these ideals has been well documented, but few historians (with the notable exception of Caroline Lieffers) have linked this to the kitchen. Yet in so many books, the title itself is an attempt to capture the reader’s imagination, praying on the middle classes’ commitment to progress and improvement.[3]

In explaining her work, Catherine discussed the ways that the books can make a reader feel trapped in endless housework. She evoked women imprisoned in an endless round of tasks which are never completely done and always need to be redone. Her comments reminded me of Margaret Beetham’s analysis of women’s magazines, and in particular of her argument that women’s magazines—and I would suggest that the same can be said of cookbooks—present femininity as ‘at once axiomatic and fractured.’ Though the assumed reader is a woman, she is also presented to herself as being continually in the process of becoming a woman, because there is no possible endpoint to this project, no conceivable point at which a woman can be imagined to be allowed to be satisfied with herself or her accomplishments. Catherine’s work here, and elsewhere where she has, for example, worked with dust itself as a way of engaging with the endlessness and futility of domestic work, seem to be a manifestation of the impossibility of living up to the high standards set by cookery writers.

Participants ranged from graduate student to artists to members of the public who like thinking about cooking. The atmosphere was informal and discussion seemed to come effortlessly as participants passed around the cookbooks and exchanged memories and experiences from their own culinary lives. Though the consensus was that nineteenth-century recipes are not appetizing to twentieth-century palates, the desired effect of mealtime sociability—getting everyone around a table to make connections—clearly worked.

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Rachel Rich is History Programme Leader at Leeds Beckett University. Her research interests include food, eating and domesticity. Rachel is a member of the editorial boards of Food and History and Women’s History as well as being an occasional contributor to The Recipes Project.

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[1] The New Family Receipt Book, Containing One Thousand truly Valuable Receipts in Various Branches of Domestic Economy (1837)

[2] Five Thousand Receipts in all the Useful and Domestic Arts, (1823)

[3] Some examples from within the Home Studies collection include: Alexis Soyer A Shilling Cookery for the People: Embracing an entirely new system of plain cookery and domestic economy (1855), Anon, The Family Cookery Book, or Improved system of Domestic Economy containing above eight hundred valuable receipts, many of which are entirely original, the whole forming a most useful ECONOMICAL COMPANION (1812), and Mrs Mary Holland (Professed Cook), The Complete Economical Cook, and Frugal Housewife: An Entirely new system of Domestic Cookery (1835)


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