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What Mrs Beeton did to us

18 April 2012

9:03 AM

18 April 2012

9:03 AM

I have a beaten up old copy of a book from the late 19th century that sits among my collection of recipe volumes in my study at home. When I retrieve this particular doorstop of a tome, the back
falls off and gnarled pages flutter to the floor. I pick them up and recipe 1,790 catches my eye: ‘Bread and Butter Pudding, Steamed’. It’s one recipe among 2,070 odd pages and
it’s from a collection that is widely considered to be one of the greatest cookbooks in the English language.

Beeton’s Book of Household
Management
was first published in 1861 (the ‘Mrs’ was added in later additions). It was a publishing sensation at the time, its popularity has endured for a further 150 years
and it is still in print today.

In fact so enamoured by her work was the distinguished food writer and cook Gerard Baker that last year he published the results of his painstaking efforts to test and re-cook 220 of her recipes;
up-dating them for the modern cook in his book Mrs
Beeton: How to Cook
. ‘Mrs Beeton’s core themes — buy well, cook well and eat well — are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago,’ he wrote.

But, apart from presenting to generations of cooks every conceivable recipe she could lay her hands on, what real influence did she have on British food culture?

Today you can’t park your car in a market town in this country on Saturday because there’s a farmer’s market. Supermarkets sell ingredients from every corner of the globe, there
is wall-to-wall food television, celebrity chefs bedeck newspaper supplements and magazines and every second person you meet claims they are a foodie.

British food is enjoying a prolonged and deep renaissance. But what helped kill it off in the first place? In the course of researching my own history of food, particularly those parts that focus
on the evolution (and death and re-birth) of our national cuisine I kept on coming up against a rather uncomfortable truth.

British food culture suffered the first pangs of death in the mid to late 19th century (before two world wars and rationing put the final nails in the coffin) just at the time Mrs Beeton was
distributing her massive volume.

Recipes she may have printed, but her cooking methods and the ingredients she used actually signalled the death of culinary sophistication.


At the very moment of publication convenience goods were coming onto the market. There were dried packets of soup, margarine, tinned fruits, powdered custard and condensed milk. Food factories
began to churn out cheap pork pies and collared beef. The need to make such dishes at home was gone.

The era of the 1850s and 60s was one of great transition. Industrialisation was transforming everything and cooking was entering a new age. AG Payne, editor of the Victorian Cassell’s Dictionary of
Cookery
wrote that, ‘the world is changing very quickly and probably in no previous part of our history have we as a nation undergone so rapid and complete a change as during the
past few years.’

Cookbooks of old had implored the cook to not just cook some pork but how, having killed the pig, you should singe off the hairs before butchering it. The summer months were spent preserving the
gluts of fruit and vegetables. But the middle classes in the nation’s cities, whose numbers tripled between 1851 and 1871, had no plot for the pig, smaller kitchens and pantries had turned
into cupboards.

There was no space for your preserved plums, but come winter you didn’t need it anyway because you could just buy them.

The improved manufacture of metal containers for food saw ships selling all kinds of canned food. Tinned beef arrived from America, canned salmon from Alaska and if Rowntree’s, Fry’s
and Cadbury’s could make confectionary for you, why do it yourself?

And as smaller houses had less room for servants there were fewer hands to help with these peripheral labours.

The late-19th century Cassell’s Household Guide preached mantra that ‘time is money’ and food manufacturers burgeoned on the back of it. And all the while they had a
young woman whose husband was a successful publisher cheering them on.

Isabella Beeton, who unlike her image would have you believe, was a pretty, slender 25 year-old in 1861, explains how to make lemonade powder for instant lemonade that uses no lemon. None of her
recipes use fresh herbs, wines or spices. And she had particular views about veg.

‘Vegetables that are cooked in a raw state are apt to ferment in the stomach,’ she warned, thereby starting a British tradition that lasted well into the 1980s of boiling vegetables to
tasteless extinction.

Mrs Beeton lived in an era of haughty authoritarianism and she was by no means immune to it. ‘Cold baths or tepid baths,’ she wrote, ‘should be employed every morning.’ One
of her contemporaries was the appalling Dr Pye Henry Chavasse who, abhorring the very idea of pleasure, launched a vicious assault on puddings.

‘I consider them as so much slow poison,’ he wrote in his book of child-rearing. ‘If a child be never allowed to eat cakes and sweets, he will consider a piece of dry bread a
luxury.’

Meanwhile Beeton’s Book of Household Management did not, as the title suggests just include recipes.

Imagine a young newly-married woman being presented with this heavy weapon of a book by her mother-in-law as the answer to her domestic fears. It may be that she’d discover how to deal with
bad dreams, calculate income tax, take in lodgers, apply a bandage, make a bed, clean an oil painting, give the correct duties to a footman and register a death, but as she lugged it to her parlour
its joyless heavy burden would surely have sapped her will to live.

Only now are we once again yearning to keep pigs, discussing food is no longer sniffed at over dinner, and the foodies among us are all baking and preserving as if lives depended on it. The
Victorian era favoured presentation over flavour and Mrs Beeton’s book was the first book to revel in colour illustrations; the images of cold dishes encased in aspic for smart lunches being
a feast for the eyes rather than the palate.

As I pop the pages that have fallen from my own copy back into the book, I engage in my favourite use for it. Placed at the foot of my bookcase it gives me four vital extra inches so I can reach
that distinctly un-Victorian recipe for a chocolate pudding that sits on the top shelf.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes, by William Sitwell is published by Collins (£20)


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