Introduction to Victorian Cooking.
Cookbooks as mirrors to the past.
“The young housekeeper will appreciate the advantages of a compendium which embraces rules and advice pertaining to all the duties expected of her.” -1872
Cookbooks published throughout the 1800s extolled the virtues of nourishing body, mind, and soul through healthful food. The cook had a responsibility to ensure that meals were prepared with each diner in mind, be it a house guest with a tempermental diet, a new husband who might stray due to burnt dishes, or the sickly child who was in need of careful attention.
Victorian cookbooks covered a broad spectrum of topics likewise suitable to a broad spectrum of readers. Some authors chose to write for households of modest means, giving advice on how to stretch the food budget. Others wrote for ladies of the house, providing guidance to these educated women on how to manage their homes and their cooks.
Outside of a few seminal texts, such as The Joy of Cooking, rarely do today’s cookbooks attempt to cover the spectrum of topics included in their classic counterparts. Certainly, the modern reader does not expect an exhaustive guide on animal husbandry (and butchery) to appear in a BBQ or grilling cookbook. Indeed, old cookbooks share more than just recipes and scullery chores, extending their prose well beyond kitchen duties. Often, the collections include directions on marketing, butchery, gardening, cellering, laundry day, cleaning tips, and the sick room. Through their pages, we can begin to patch together an appreciation of the amount of work it would have taken to run a home in the 1800s. Simply by noting the breadth of topics, the reader immediately gets the sense that the cookbook owner would have treated her book as a trusted vade mecum, a go-to guide to help navigate the world.
Male cookbook authors were seen as second class to their counterparts who focused on literary novels or nonfiction pieces. Well-known male authors were known to each other and would compete with their printed volumes for sales. Many cookbook authors were women, as it was a socially acceptable means of providing a source of income. Authors would often set up cooking schools and reference these businesses in their books. As for the ladies, they, too, ran cooking schools and some of the most famous Victorian cookbooks were printed in the late 1800s by women authors, including Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook, the latter standardizing measurements in cookbooks and recipes and serving to improve cooking everywhere.
Interestingly, authors during this period frequently would co-opt recipes from previously published books. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to come across recipes that are essentially the same in different cookbooks by different authors. And not just recipes. Wood cuts from one book that was printed years before may suddenly make a comeback in a new volume. Today’s reader may very well have moments of déjà vu when flipping through pages of recipes.
Of course, the vast majority of a cookbook’s contents did focus on food recipes. These recipes might be arranged alphabetically, by category (e.g., soups or desserts), or even by daily menu. How the book was laid out was at the discretion of the author. Navigating these cookbooks requires patience and curiosity. Some cookbooks are organized with page numbers, but also recipe numbers. The index might note the page number or the recipe number, or both. The Table of Contents might be arranged topically, when the actual contents of the book are printed alphabetically. Readers need to pay careful attention to the numbers next to any listing in order to figure out where a recipe actually is in any given book.
The true joy comes, however, when exploring each book as it is presented. Authors may include side notes, cultural references, funny stories, or strange turns of prose that leave the reader wondering about what the writer was thinking.
More often than not, one is left with a wishful desire to sit down with the author over a thoughtfully prepared meal. As this is not possible, the next best thing is to share these discoveries with others who are passionate for the past and for food that nurtures body, mind, and soul.