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!

 

“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” and Nineteenth-Century Joke Recipes

Avery Blankenship, PhD Student, Department of English, Northeastern University

“A good many husbands are utterly spoiled by mismanagement,” begins a recipe printed in the December 31, 1885 edition of the South Carolina Anderson Intelligencer [1], “some women go about as if their husbands were bladders and blow them up. Others keep them constantly in hot water; others let them freeze by their carelessness and indifference. Some keep them in a stew by irritating ways and words. Others roast them. Some keep them in pickles all their lives.” The writer of this recipe, referred to only as a “Baltimore lady,” however, promises to provide a tried and true method for cooking a husband to perfection. 

Image 1 – “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” The Anderson intelligencer. December 31, 1885, Image 4. Courtesy of Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

This recipe, like many of the joke recipes that made the rounds in nineteenth-century newspapers, takes the form of a recipe and puts a unique twist on it. Typically, these joke recipes have very little to do with food—often focusing on domestic issues such as marriage, keeping house, and tending to children. In this particular recipe, the reader—who presumably has yet to be married—is instructed to not “go to market for him, as the best are always brought to your door.” The rest of the recipe unfolds like a recipe for boiling crab or lobster, instructing the reader to make and cook them while alive, add “sugar” in the form of affection but never vinegar, and that in doing so, he will “keep as long as you want, unless you become careless and set him in too cold a place.” 

Joke recipes, particularly in the nineteenth-century, though their popularity certainly continued beyond this one-hundred year span, enabled people primarily operating out of the domestic sphere to speak to a wider audience through a genre that their audience might not typically read. Occasionally, male writers would attempt to copy the style of a joke recipe, for instance in the February 6, 1885 edition of the Maryland Aegis & Intelligencer in which a male writer is directly responding to the popularity of  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands.” The writer is offering up advice on how to cook a wife, though he admits “I have never tried any of my receipts yet, but I am anxiously looking around for some one to practise them on.” 

Through this style of humorous recipe writing, domestic writers were able to set aside the seriousness of a typical nineteenth-century recipe with its precision and focus on the task of feeding families in order to share frustrations, joy, sadness, and even anger with others operating in domestic spaces. Particularly for nineteenth-century domestic writers and workers, for whom the division between work and leisure time was indistinct, carving out a place where they could play within the framework of work was especially important. Through joke recipes, domestic workers could take the frame of labor—in this case the recipe form—and share a particular type of humor that is associated with their lives outside of the kitchen. The appearance of the  “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” recipe in a newspaper, as opposed to a formally published cookbook or even community cookbook which both occasionally printed joke recipes, points to the ability of the joke recipe to speak back to audiences outside of the domestic sphere. On one hand, the recipe is a humorous inside joke amongst women, but with the wide readership of the newspaper, it ensures that male readers will also come across the recipe and take note of the complaints that women have regarding their domestic lives. 

“A Recipe for Cooking Husbands” not only provides a window into domestic humor in the nineteenth century, but also domestic struggles. The recipe urges its readers to not be lured in by silvery appearances or by a golden tint. In other words, to not prioritize looks or wealth over other factors such as attitude. The recipe also provides guidelines for when one’s husband angers, writing that “if he sputters and fizzes, do not be anxious; some husbands do this till they are quite done.” These lines, though comical, provide advice to young women either in the early stages of marriage or considering marriage, warning against too much focus on wealth and appearance and providing instructions for dealing with disagreements using humor to mask domestic advice.

The humor of “A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,” although crafted around nineteenth-century domestic life, continued to have cultural relevance even into the late 1950s, appearing in reprint in community cookbooks, magazines, and other domestic ephemera even the particular style of recipe writing used was outdated. This uptake and re-circulation of joke recipes shows that the stories coming out of the domestic sphere—tensions within a marriage, trouble with raising children, and even abstract depictions of joy, happiness, and even anger have a cultural relevance that extends beyond a single lifetime.  

Previous posts on parody and joke recipes have focused on early modern Russian recipes. 

Notes:

[1]  It should be noted that this version of the recipe is a reprint of an earlier version which appeared in the Baltimore Sun. Based on commentary from other reprints of this recipe, we can guess it was originally printed at the end of January 1885. The Baltimore Sun is not included in Chronicling America’s database of historical newspapers, so I’ve pulled an early reprint of the recipe.

 

 

A Great Tea-Drinking: Collective Memory and Victorian Invalid Cookery

By Bonnie Shishko

Midway through Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), Esther Summerson relinquishes her beloved role as adopted housekeeper and assumes another: sick nurse. In a tense scene that’s painfully relevant in this era of COVID, Esther rushes to isolate herself and Charley, a servant who has contracted smallpox. Quickly locking her bedroom door, Esther quarantines with Charley and nurses her around the clock. The two women mark Charley’s recovery by drinking tea. “It was a great evening,” Esther tells us, “when Charley and I at last took tea together.”

But it is the night of the celebratory tea that Esther realizes she and Charley have shared more than a room and a food ritual. Esther has contracted Charley’s smallpox. In a role reversal foreshadowed by the chapter’s ambiguous title, “Nurse and Patient,” Esther becomes the patient and Charley, at thirteen years old, the nurse.   

Although told from Esther’s perspective, the chapter “Nurse and Patient” makes one thing clear: for many Victorian women, illness and disease was not a private but a collective experience. “If I am to be ill,” Esther tells Charley, “my great trust, humanly speaking, is in you” (433). Esther’s assumption that she and Charley—both young, inexperienced, and of different social classes—are capable of and responsible for nursing each other through a grave disease exemplifies what Talia Schaffer calls the “reciprocal” and communal nature of Victorian caregiving. For much of the nineteenth century, “nursing occurs within the home,” Schaffer writes. And so, “in Victorian fiction, care really does take a village” (198; 193).  

While the realist novel might have fictionalized collective care through food, another genre offered explicit instructions in how to provide such care: “invalid cookbooks,” or cookery books intended to nourish the ill and disabled. Such cookbooks were not groundbreaking; invalid recipes appeared in manuscripts and print domestic manuals since the Renaissance (Notaker 201). Yet, Victorian discoveries in nutrition science and the ensuing effort to reform domestic cookery prompted a plethora of publications geared to help women prepare nutritionally-appropriate meals for the sick (Adelman 189; 194; 203).

For all their claims to modernization, however, a glance across the dishes in mid-Victorian invalid menus reveals a noticeable uniformity with cookbooks past—and with each other (Adelman 193-4). In her bestselling 1859 Book of Household Management, for example, Isabella Beeton includes a chapter on “Invalid Cookery,” with dishes that echo Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery: mutton broth, barley water, gruel. Other writers boosted this trend. Caregivers who wished to spice up Beeton’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches”—a slice of toast layered between two buttered and salted slices of bread—need look no further than J.W. Walsh’s recipe for “Toast Sandwiches for Invalids” from The English Cookery Book (1859). In a twist on the bland diet traditionally assigned to the ill, Walsh’s recipe permits a dab of mustard (316).

On the one hand, the repetition of recipes across Victorian invalid cookbooks testifies to received beliefs around invalid diets. As Juliana Adelman argues, such texts established a “canon of foods” for the ill (193). But Victorian writers were not merely standardizing but collecting; they self-consciously harnessed the recipe’s status as a form built for exchange in order to construct a discursive care collective for working- and middle-class women who, like Esther and Charley, found themselves performing the role of nurse. What I especially want to emphasize is the centrality of the recipe as a narrative form to this enterprise. Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster explain that “[t]he root of the word recipe,” the Latin imperative recipere, or “take,” signals the restlessness of the form; its need to “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (6). “Meaning both to give and to receive,” they write, recipes function as what Luce Giard calls ‘multiplications of borrowing’” (6). Recipes are mobile; they are traversable; they cross borders of time and space. With each “borrowing,” the “care community,” to borrow Schaffer’s term, multiplies. 

Frontispiece, Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton (1861). Credit: British Library, London.

 

To see the invalid recipe in action as an exchanged object, we might turn again to tea; this time, to the popular invalid dish “beef tea.” Between Beeton and Walsh, we find six recipes for beef tea, including plain, “baked,” and one “quickly made.” The recipe I want us to notice, however, belongs to a third writer: the celebrated French chef, Alexis Soyer. Beeton borrowed Soyer’s previously published “Savoury Beef Tea” for the chapter. Visually demarcated by the parentheticals “Soyer’s Recipe,” yet tucked between her own beef tea recipes, Beeton’s recirculation of Soyer’s instructions makes visible—and replicable—another option to administer care. In Walsh’s cookbook, the network of exchange materializes in the very subtitle, undergirding the work’s structure itself: “Receipts Collected by a Committee of Ladies.” Although “compiled” by women “at the head of well-conducted establishments,” Walsh spotlights their diversity and dailiness. “Many come from their own family scrap-books,” he boasts, and are “In Daily Use By Private Families” (iii; Title Page).

Soyer’s Recipe for Beef Tea, Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton (1859). Credit: author’s own photograph.

 

Invalid recipes are a form of recollection; a food memory. As formal objects with histories of exchange from “family scrap-books” to the print marketplace to sickrooms across Britain, invalid recipes like Walsh’s collect and publicly record private sickroom experiences of both eating and feeding. As we track the kinetic energy of the recipe, its urge for movement across space and time, a vast collective record of care, illness, and recovery comes into view. Perhaps more than any other recipe type, invalid recipes thus occupy the border of public and private memory. In his study of food and its relationship to memory, David Sutton argues for food’s ability to blend “social” and “individual” memory. “In producing, exchanging and consuming food” he explains, “we are continuously criss-crossing between the ‘public’ and the ‘intimate,’ individual bodies and collective institutions” (160).

Invalid Recipes, The English Cookery Book, J.W. Walsh, editor (1859). Credit: author’s own photograph.

 

Perhaps this is why Esther narrates her personal recovery from smallpox through a shared food memory. “How well I remember the pleasant afternoon when I was raised in bed with pillows for the first time, to enjoy a great tea-drinking with Charley!” (481). Both the communal act of drinking tea and the recollection of doing so carry healing for Esther. Yet this alimentary care is delivered not by Charley alone, but relies on a third woman: Esther’s beloved friend Ada, who prepares a tea-table for the event. Although banned from the sickroom per Esther’s strict infection protocol, it is the tea-table’s traversability that I want to call attention to, particularly its ability to move between and bind together three women of different social classes isolated in separate spaces of their home. For “nurse and patient”—and for their friend, relegated downstairs and off the page—the “great tea-drinking,” like the invalid recipe, connects the nodes in the care network and memorializes its collective labor.


References

Adelman, Juliana. “Invalid Cookery, Nursing and Domestic Medicine in Ireland, c. 1900,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 73, no. 2 (2018): 188-204.

Beeton, Isabella. Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1861.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House, edited by Jennifer Mooney. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. 

Floyd, Janet and Forster, Laurel. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 1-11.  

Notaker, Henry. A History of Cookbooks: from Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

Schaffer, Talia. “Disabling Marriage: Communities of Care in Our Mutual Friend.” Replotting Marriage in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, edited by Jill Galvan and Elsie Michie. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 192-210.  

Sutton, David. “A Tale of Easter Ovens: Food and Collective Memory.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 1 (2008): 157-180.  

Walsh, J.T. The English Cookery Book. London: G. Routledge and Co, 1859.


About

Dr. Bonnie Shishko is Assistant Professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte. Her research and teaching focus on the history of women’s domestic writing, especially the Victorian cookbook and the contemporary food novel. Her work on the recipe and its transformation into a mode of art criticism in the late-Victorian era is forthcoming in the edited collection Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press, Spring 2021). She has also explored the connection between Victorian recipes and the national trend of baking bread during Covid-19. Her essay can be read here

The Circus Origins of Pink Lemonade

By Betsy Golden Kellem

Few things whip up an appetite quite like the playground of cotton candy, popcorn, fried food and sweet drinks that accompanies a circus. Pink lemonade in particular has long been associated with the circus, which does not simply claim to enjoy the beverage, but to have invented it: and in a business that relies so heavily on oral tradition (in industry parlance, “cutting up jackpots”), there are two tales about how the drink was therein first created.

Black and white ad, reading 'Iced lemonade, cool and refreshing'. There is a picture of a glass, lemons, and tools for making lemonade.
Iced Lemonade, published, Currier and Ives, 1879. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The first comes from Henry E. Allott, whose New York Times obituary (1912) bills him as the “Inventor of Pink Lemonade,” and attributes his creation to a stroke of luck: one day, mixing a batch of plain yellow lemonade, Allott claimed to have knocked a pile of red cinnamon candy into the tub by mistake. “The resulting rose-tinted mixture sold so surprisingly well,” relates the Times, “that he continued to dispense his chance discovery.” 

George Conklin begged to differ. A career showman and lion tamer, Conklin included the creation myth of pink lemonade in his 1921 memoir The Ways of the Circus, crediting his brother Pete with an equally happy accident on the Mabie circus. Conklin stated that one day in 1857, with concession sales going swimmingly, Pete found that he was out of water and there were no nearby natural sources from which he could refill his beverage stock. Racing frantically through the show lot, Pete found the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson in the middle of laundry day, wringing out a pair of her pink tights. “Without giving any explanation or stopping to answer her questions,” Conklin explained, “Pete grabbed the tub of pink water and ran.” Sales of what Pete billed as strawberry lemonade went gangbusters, and “from then on no first-class circus was without pink lemonade.”

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado.
Modern concession stand at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 2015. Image Credit: Library of Congress.

 

And, look… everyone likes lemonade. Lemonade is refreshing and tart and has the whiff of summer indulgence to it. Not everything that was sold as lemonade in the nineteenth century was what you and I and the Federal Trade Commission would regard as lemonade, though: it was common practice, inside the circus and beyond, to serve a form of lemonade that had more citrus in name than composition. 

Some vendors truly did make a point of ensuring the purity of their lemon beverages. Others simply took anything that would make a vaguely tart-sweet combo and floated a lemon slice on top: one 1867 vendor, selling to incoming immigrants to the United States, was said to have offered a dingy mix of molasses, vinegar and water with a few sad lemon rinds floating on top. The standard circus recipe, relayed by Conklin, long involved water, tartaric acid (a fruit-based acidulant compound that lends a sour flavor, and from which cream of tartar is derived), a pinch of red aniline dye (a coal tar derivative now largely used to tint wood stain), and slices of re-usable “floater” lemons for appearance’s sake. (And before you gasp in horror, a modern combination of high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based red #40 and “natural flavors” may not be too far off.) 

That said, as long as the drinks were cold and the show was good, no one much needed to pretend that pink lemonade came from anything organic: one writer in 1872 concluded that only “a possible purchaser with hereditary proclivities to insanity may be deluded into the idea that strawberries enter into the composition of the potable.” 


About


Betsy Golden Kellem is a scholar of the unusual. A historian and media attorney, she has written for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post and Slate, and serves on the board of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She blogs at Drinks With Dead People, and is at work on a book about remarkable performing women.