Category Archives: Rachel Rich

Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377

The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

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.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

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 or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

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 skilfully 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.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.


[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111

History of Food and Medicine

This just in from contributors Rachel Rich and Sara Pennell…

The book of household management by Mrs Beeton Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The book of household management by Mrs Beeton
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Check out their virtual issue of Social History of Medicine onFood the Forgotten Medicine’.  What is a virtual issue? Well, as guest editors for an online-only issue of SHM, they have compiled a collection of articles from the journal’s archives on food and medicine. But best of all, they’ve  written a wonderful introduction to the subject. It’s a really good special issue.

Go now. The virtual issue is completely free, but only available until September 2016!

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.