Eliza Acton unintendedly ended up in a very controversial affair when a certain Mrs. Beeton -you might have heard of- The latter decided to compile a mammoth of a book aiming to help young housewives like herself to have a detailed all in one reference to master the art of managing a household. Commendable as this task was, Beeton –deliberately?- failed at one tiny detail: provide references of the many sources she consulted to compile her works.
You can read my review on The Real Mrs Beeton here, this is one of the few books that has been written about her.
In The Elegant Economist we get a glimpse into the writing style and overall approach Acton had on cookery. Although it is customary for us nowadays to find shelves filled cookery books that are too often written by women, this certainly wasn’t the case in 1845 when Acton’s Modern Cookery was first published. Serious cookbooks were written by men for men. Chefs were the ones who kept, reproduced and mastered haute cuisine, women were just home cooks, although she wasn’t the first female author to publish a cooking book, prior to her was the successful Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1748.
As a former teacher herself, Acton came up with a straightforward style of recipe writing that in all fairness was perfected by Beeton.
- Name of the recipe.
- A single long paragraph in which she often provides some incidental information of either of the main ingredients or any particular note on the dish itself and carries on with the procedure.
- At the end and not always the ingredients, quantities are sometimes included as well as cooking times.
We can already see the problem here, the first is the format consistency and secondly neither of the variations offer much help for the already busy housewife that will have to spend extra time either guessing or interpreting the recipes, a challenge in itself, especially if she isn’t very experienced.
Beeton then resolved the issue by providing:
- Name of the recipe.
- List of ingredients with exact quantities.
- Cooking times.
- In some cases she provides low cost alternatives.
Here’s an example of a soup recipe.
(Potage au Vermicelle)
Drop very lightly, and by degrees, six of vermicelli, broken rather small, into three quarts of boiling bullion, or clear gravy soup; let it simmer for half an hour over a gentle fire, and sit it often. This is the common French mode of making vermicelli soup, and we can recommend it as a particularly good one for family use. In England is customary to soak, or blanch the vermicelli, then to drain it well, and to stew it for a shorter time in the soup; the quantity also must be reduced quite two ounces, to suit modern taste.
Bouillon, or gravy soup, 3 quarts; vermicelli, 6 ox; 30 minutes. Or, soup, 3 quarts; vermicelli, 4 oz.; blanched in boiling water 5 minutes; stewed in soup 10 to 15 minutes.
You can easily find these Penguin Great Food books as a whole set or you can build up your collection the slow but cheaper (and much more fun way) by hunting them down at second-hand bookshops, and charity shops. I found several on the street book stalls in near the Modern Tate for almost a fourth of the original price.