Cookbook review: Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management

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Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton
Cookbook

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was, and still is, a publishing phenomenon.
When Mrs Beeton was writing her books, the notions of household management and good cooking were inextricably linked. In fact she saw good and organised cooking as a way of enticing the men back from their clubs into the family fold!
She is very direct. In the introduction to the book she says:
"I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways."
Thus she gives a rallying cry to England's housewives to embrace cooking and to take the kitchen more seriously than they did.
And why was she saying this - it was because:
"Men are now so well-served out of doors, - at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining houses, that in order to compete with the attractions of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable house."
She then goes on to attempt to give an analysis of 'every recipe' - a gigantic claim.
Forty four chapters are then laid out. Most deal with cooking but there are occasional digressions into health-related matters.
The material in the book was first published (as was the fashion at the time) in monthly sections from 1859 to 1861 (many of Charles Dickens works were published in this way as well). Such was the reaction to the works that it was published in book format (including coloured engravings) in 1861. The book that we have reviewed is a facsimile edition printed by Jonathan Cape Limited in 1968.
The book starts with a very detailed Analytical index which lists ingredients and techniques in alphabetic order. It is important to realise, however, that the references are to the numbered paragraphs unless the number is preceded by the letter 'p' in which case it refers to a page.
In the beginning chapters there is a lot of scene-setting about what good housekeeping really is and what the role of the 'mistress' should be. Economy in the kitchen is also valued.
When we get to Chapter 5 we are ready to cook soups. The language used is so enticing and declarative:
"Stock being the basis of all meat soups, and, also, of all the principal sauces, it is essential to the success of these culinary operations, to know the most complete and economical method of extracting , from a certain quantity of meat, the best possible stock or broth. The theory and philosophy of this process we will, therefore, explain, and then proceed to show the practical course to be adopted."
As you move into the soup recipes you start to get some surprises as you read short homilies on all sorts of topics including an understanding of the cocoa-nut (to support a recipe for cocoa soup), a discourse on the lentil (to support a recipe for soup a la crecy) and many more. This is a method we wish would be repeated in modern recipe books where rather than giving a mindless recitation of ingredients, the writer should take the reader deeper and deeper into an understanding of the subject at hand. Mrs Beeton was truly a ground-breaking writer in this respect.
Also in the soup section there is a problematic recipe for Kale Brose which is subtitled as a Scotch Recipe. If ever there was a recipe that needed a modern interpretation it is this one. It sounds delicious. It involves making a broth from an ox head or calves foot combined with oatmeal and 'two handfuls of greens'. We have no idea what the greens might be, but assume they are kale or spinach or similar.
When we get to rice soup it is fascinating to see that Beeton even references the great botanist Dioscorides who flourished in Turkey and Rome in the first century AD.
Overall this book makes for fascinating reading and many hours of enjoyment trying out the plethora of excellent recipes.
It is a 'must-have' book!
 
     
   
     


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