British, Great Books
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The real Mrs Beeton. The story of Eliza Acton

acton

By Shelia Hardy

The history press, 2011
 
Eliza Acton (1799-1859) has proved herself to be quite the elusive black swan!
 
She was, like several other female national treasures, a very educated and inquisitive woman who by choice, chance or both remained single until her death and her private life remains mostly a mystery.
 
In short: she went from being a pretty normal Ipswich girl to become a poet, governess, entrepreneur (she owned a school for girls), researcher, writer and food-security and nutrition literacy advocate…. But she must have had other passions, pursuits, desires…of which we know very little.
 
Hardy, the author of this book certainly made a big effort to track down as much information as possible not necessarily about Miss Acton since it appears to be so little, but about her family, acquaintances, political and social events that influenced Eliza’s life and work.
 

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.

MODERN

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.

Click here to access the 1845 edition available for reading or download on The Internet Archive.
 
Miss Acton strikes me as very pragmatic yet she often seemed to be much sharper than her sense of restrain and diplomacy allowed her to show.
It is somehow frustrating that we know so little about such an influential figure who amongst her friends she counted the very non other than Charles Dickens with whom she maintained a friendly relation of which we know thanks to some of their surviving letters.
 
To contextualize Acton’s opinions and concerns towards food, the author turns repeatedly to Austen and Dickens to provide passages where food and eating habits are mentioned. We can assume then that pork chops weren’t an uncommon breakfast item as it is so casually mentioned in Dicken’s David Copperfield, or that this first meal of the day was typically served at 10 as mentioned on Lydia Bennet’s wedding day in Pride and Prejudice.
 
Miss Acton was well travelled for a single woman in her days but she maintained a solid social awareness of the needs and economic challenges that middle class and working families had to face. Her books reflect that same attention to reducing waste, economizing, providing nutritious and non-pretentious food accessible to anyone.
 

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”.

IMG_7400Elizabeth 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.

3newInteresting book no doubt, it does contribute to the better understanding of one of Britain’s most influential cookery writers.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Elegant Economist | How to be the hero of your own kitchen!

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