Friday, March 23, 2012

Celebrity Chefs of the Nineteenth Century, Part 2: Mrs. Beeton

Prinny’s favorite chef wasn’t the only one celebrated for culinary excellence. One of the go-to sources for recipes and household management in nineteenth century England, then and now, is Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. The illustrated book, collected from columns Isabella Beeton wrote over 24 months for her husband's magazine, numbers at over a thousand pages, and basically tells a lady all she needs to know about taking care of her home and family. It also included advice for servants. But more than a collection of recipes, Mrs. Beeton strove to help her readers understand the "why" behind the "how."

"I have followed the animal from his birth to his appearance on the table; have described the manner of feeding him, and of slaying him, the position of his various joints, and, after giving the recipes, have described the modes of carving Meat, Poultry, and Game," she says in her preface. She is also credited with developing the form of recipes we still follow today as well as focusing on presentation of food rather than just its mixture.

You would think that someone who instructed generations of Britains would have been well educated in domestic practices, perhaps run a sizeable household herself for many years. At least, that's what I thought when I went looking for more information on her. Imagine my surprise to find that Isabella was only 23 when she began writing the columns! She'd been educated at a school for girls in Germany, and she married her husband when she was 20. She had four children, two of whom died when they were very young, and she herself died shortly after birthing the fourth, at age 28. Yet she left a legacy that helped thousands of young ladies just like herself function with style as wives and mothers. Pretty impressive!

From project Gutenberg, here is her general advice on my favorite part of the meal, dessert:

"Pines, melons, grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries, apples, pears, oranges, almonds, raisins, figs, walnuts, filberts, medlars [fruit from a deciduous tree in the rose family], cherries, &c. &c., all kinds of dried fruits, and choice and delicately-flavoured cakes and biscuits, make up the dessert, together with the most costly and recherché wines. The shape of the dishes varies at different periods, the prevailing fashion at present being oval and circular dishes on stems. The patterns and colours are also subject to changes of fashion; some persons selecting china, chaste in pattern and colour; others, elegantly-shaped glass dishes on stems, with gilt edges. The beauty of the dessert services at the tables of the wealthy tends to enhance the splendour of the plate. The general mode of putting a dessert on table, now the elegant tazzas are fashionable, is, to place them down the middle of the table, a tall and short dish alternately; the fresh fruits being arranged on the tall dishes, and dried fruits, bon-bons, &c., on small round or oval glass plates."

Is anyone else suddenly hungry?


J.Grace said...

Thanks for posting, I would be interested in looking into the book when it was first published, if there are any original copies still in existence.
How sad she died so young.

Marissa Doyle said...

Mrs. Beeton's book went into dozens of editions, but I'm sure there are still first editions in libraries or museums. However, facsimiles of the first edition are easily available--I found mine on eBay, published in 1968 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, for a very reasonable price, and you could also check

QNPoohBear said...

did anybody see the show that aired on BBC/PBS The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton? I missed it but I'm sure it's available on DVD. Mrs. Beeton has her own website

Anyone interested in the subject of historical cooking can look through some historical American cookbooks at the University of Michigan's Feeding America project

Regina Scott said...

I didn't see the show, QNPoohBear, but I'm glad you posted the website. I meant to link it and forgot. Thank you!