From Recipe to Biography: Georgiana Hill’s life in cooking

By Rachel Rich

 

Two rabbits sitting next to the entrance of their burrow while a couple of rabbits are gamboling in the background. Etching by J. Tookeyafter J. C. Ibbetson.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In a previous post, I compared Georgiana Hill with Isabella Beeton, in order to reflect on different genres of Victorian recipe books. But Hill is interesting as more than a counterpart to the more famous Beeton. Georgiana Hill was a prolific cookery writer in the 1860s. Of what she did before this, and how she spent her remaining years after, little is known. Until recently, the most notable mention of her by a historian was in Joan Thirsk’s ‘Forward’ Women in English Society, 1500-1800 (edited by Mary Prior, 1985). Thirsk, perfectly understandably, assumed that Hill the cookery writer was the same person as Georgiana Hill who published on women’s history in the 1890s. We now know otherwise.  In 2012 Panmacmillan reprinted Everybody’s Pudding Book as A Year of Victorian Puddings. Now Hill is back in our minds and the ODNB will be adding an entry on her to their publication in the near future.

Apart from what the census yields, the best clues about Hill’s life come from her cookbooks. The introduction to Puddings suggests that Hill had sense of humour since she offered a funny take on the usual trope of scolding women for their lack of culinary know-how, with a clearly exaggerated tale of a visit to an elderly woman who served apple pudding six months a year and gooseberry pudding the other six, because these were the only two recipes her servant could tolerably execute. Hill wrote that ‘This slight incident decided me to undertake a work for the assistance and enlightenment of any ladies who may be in like distress; and if through my editorial exertions, one of the fair or even sterner sex be spared a moment’s trouble on the subject…I shall…feel I am incontestably entitled to be looked upon as a benefactor of my species.’

Elsewhere, Hill did away completely with the conventional form, opting, for example, for some thoughts on rabbits as pets, and as having health-giving properties, in the introduction to The Gourmet’s Guide to Rabbit Cooking, in one hundred and twenty-four dishes (1859), where she includes a little poem:

For onions, you know, are generally said
To be an excellent remedy for a cold in the head;
And rabbits I’m told by those who are smart,
Are a capital cure for a cold in the heart!

As well as being quite playful in the introductions to her books, Hill also shows herself to be a woman interested in the world around her. French frequently appeared in recipes and on menus throughout the period, being, as it was, the de facto language of gastronomy. But Hill went further than simply paying lip service to the French. She included French, but also many Spanish recipes in her books, perhaps drawing on knowledge she had acquired when she worked as a language teacher in the 1850s.

In Rabbits, Hill offers several Spanish-inspired recipes, such as ‘Spanish Conejo con Arroz,’ which involved a lot of garlic, and ‘Rabbits a la Ronda’:

Take shred ham, cold veal, and beef suet…a little grated lemon-peel, nutmeg, Cayenne pepper, salt and the crumb of a penny roll. Pound all this in a mortar, bind it with two well-beaten eggs, and put it inside your rabbit, sew it up, truss it, and lay it in a stewpan, with a quart of strong stock, a bottle of white wine, two lemons cut in quarters, a bunch of sweet-herbs, a few cloves, and a slat-spoonful of pepper…rub it over with olive-oil, and place it before a slow fire for forty minutes, basting it frequently with oil.

In Puddings, Hill mostly concentrated on English recipes, with only a smattering of French. Some of the recipes, like ‘Oxford Pudding’ or ‘Yorkshire Pudding’ had place names, and the same was true of ‘Berkshire Apple Dumplings’:

Peel and core six middling-sized apples; cover them well over with white sugar; place them in a deep dish, and put them into your oven: when they become tender, pour over them a batter made with two eggs, two spoonful of flour, and sufficient milk to make it of the requisite consistency. Bake for twenty minutes, and serve with spiced sugar, apart.

In both cases, Hill shows herself to be a skilled cook, who also expected skill of those she addressed, as in her recipe for ‘Pommes Farcies’ where she instructs that the apples are to be baked for half an hour ‘in a gay oven.’ These are recipes which were to be followed by cooks comfortable with the basics of the kitchen, and who had the confidence to follow instructions which left much to the discretion of the cook.

Reading Hill’s recipes, I feel I am getting to know a smart and funny woman, who had either travelled, or wanted to travel, and loved all things Spanish. Hill never married. Her cookbooks, which are sympathetic to women, without being overly burdened with concerns about cleaning, nursing sick children or other common concerns of the domestic advice writer, might be a clue to either the cause or the effect of remaining single. In either case, Hill is a no-nonsense sort of woman, serious minded and comfortable with the idea of women as smart, competent and hard-working, for which her subsequent career as a nurse in the 1870s provides further evidence.  Writing someone’s life from their cookbooks may not become the next mainstream trend in biographical research. But it does seem like as good a way as any of getting to know this mysterious woman, who was at once a successful professional cookery writer, and a completely unknown, ordinary, respectable woman.

In the coming months, I intend to write more about Hill and her recipes. If anyone knowns anything about her, I would love to hear from you!

The Emotional Life of Recipes

By Montserrat Cabré

Reading Elaine Leong’s January blog entry about technologies of recipe collecting, as well as her New Year’s resolution to start filling a years-long empty recipe box, reminded me of an issue I have been thinking about for some time.

A few years ago, a friend gave me to read an excerpt of The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by cultural journalist Sallie Tisdale; she rightly thought I might enjoy it. It had been published in an anthology of food writing under the familiar title of Recipes from My Mother, a topic certainly dear to my interests.[1] It is a short, very moving text that confronted me with something that my medieval and early modern recipes do not openly show: the fact that the act of writing, keeping, filing, giving, receiving or inheriting recipes may be highly emotionally charged. That is, it made the cultural historian of knowledge in me aware of rich, unexplored qualities of recipes as historical evidence.

Recipes may be the repository of complex subjective experiences. Catherine Field wrote an interesting article on early modern British women’s recipe-writing where she explored the extent in which recipes could be a medium and a witness for the construction of personal identity.[2] I myself have recently discussed Spanish early modern recipes as a source to trace changes in the ways gender was embodied.[3] But, may recipe collections be the material expression of intimate self-identity conflicts? Can they be a source with the power to express the emotion of personal failure or success? The depository of expectation and hope in one’s own worth? The material expression of one’s acknowledgement of feeling awkward? The desire to become someone else? The wish to have been cared for in a certain way?

Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Fernando Salmón personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

Sallie Tisdale’s reflections upon the recipe collections that–to her surprise–had belonged to her mother and grandmother, show us a myriad possibilities to acknowledge meaning to those paper bits written or cut out to be kept over a life time, carefully or negligently held to pass on to heirs. For her, those recipe collections are the material expression to allow memories of significant relationships to emerge; they are a means to establish a dialogue that had previously failed between her own and older women’s generations; they are a way to discover surprising, unexpected aspects of who these women were in relation to whom they wanted to be.

Félix Sangari personal recipe collection. Photo: Montserrat Cabré
Félix Sangari personal recipe collection.
Photo: Montserrat Cabré

A single recipe, endlessly tried or never attempted, may embrace diverse and divergent meanings to different people who relate to it out of chance or out of duty, at different moments in time. Reading the emotional charge that recipes encompass may not be an easy task for the historian; however, it is crucial that we acknowledge and face that recipes have these hidden lives if we are to explore the possibilities they open for us.


[1] Sallie Tisdale,  The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (New York: Riverhead, 2000), pp. 83-88; reprinted as “Recipes from my mother” in Best Food Writing 2000, edited by Molly Hughes and Alice Waters (New York: Marlowe and Company, 2000), pp. 78-82.

[2] Catherine Field, “‘Many hands hands’: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books”, in Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle (eds.), Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 49-63.

 [3] Montserrat Cabré, “Keeping Beauty Secrets in Early Modern Iberia”, in Elaine Leong and Alisa Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp.167-190.

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.