By Shelia Hardy
I have to say with all honesty that I found the first half of the book a bit too slow. And grew somehow impatient. Nevertheless I carried on reading and little by little glimpses of information casted light upon Eliza’s work and life.
Her pioneering work certainly made a most important mark and she’s been rediscovered time and time again specially in moments of crisis or social introspection as she so earnestly champions dedication, hard work and efficiency in food preparation. In other words she translates the stiff upper lip to its domestic equivalent.
Perhaps her more renowned cookery book, originally published in 1845 under the title:
Modern Cookery, In All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families. In a Series of Practical Receipts, Which Have Been Strictly Tested, And are Given with the Most Minute exactness.
When it was reprinted in 1860 the title changed slightly to:
Modern Cookery, For Private Families, Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, In a Series of Carefully Tested Receipts, In Which the Principles of Baron Liebig and Other Eminent Writers Have Been as Much as Possible Applied and Explained.
Then as now, she saw with despair and concern how the loss of cooking skills was the origin of most health and nutritional problems in a society, alongside with a low consumption of fresh vegetables and the over reliance on mass produced foods such as low quality bread.
When it comes to bread, instead of blaming the bakers themselves for using questionably good supplies and adding harmful substances such as alum to whiten the bread, she instead seems empathetic: “in the middle of the nineteenth century bread making is still a cruel labour!” […] “Every woman, high or low, ought to know how to make bread; if she do not she is a mere burthen upon de community”.
One of course must read her views with a certain historical distance as I think she meant this with the best of intentions keeping the wellbeing of British families very much at heart.
After finishing this book I have reflected on several things.
First there is no doubt that Miss Acton was a highly perceptive woman, as a good Victorian and a teacher no less she had a very compelling approach to things.
The way she structured “English bread-book for domestic use, adapted to families of every grade” in such a comprehensive fashion, explaining bread making methods, the composition of bread, flour even ovens was without a doubt a definitive precedent to Elizabeth David’s own “English Bread and Yeast Cookery”.
Elizabeth David experimented repeatedly with Miss Acton’s recipe for potato bread, to reproduce the loaf on the left picture I followed one of David’s method with great results. You can read more about that here.
I must say I disagree with the chosen title of the book. But hear me out why, Shelia Hardy made such an extensive research and effort to publish this book to make Acton some justice that the title somehow casts a shadow over both the book and Acton herself, a character so elusive and influential that must be known for her own merits and not her over (rather questionably) enthusiastic followers who cashed in on her work without crediting her.
I bought this book last year during a visit in Carlisle, Cumbria in one of the most fascinating bookshops I’ve ever been! So big and vast that MrD and myself lost track of time and spent over two hours at Bookcase, the argest independent bookshop in Britain.