I am currently reading the latest Bill Bryson book –At Home: A short history of private life It is a fascinating history of all things domestic with each chapter centering on a room in the house. It has many interesting facts and figures, including the history of things you may not have thought of before.
When talking of the kitchen he states that ‘Until almost the middle of the (nineteenth) century instructions in cookery books were always wonderfully imprecise, calling merely for ‘some flour’ or ‘enough milk’
For me, this however also illustrates the point that cooking isn’t always an exact science and following your instincts and indeed your tastes and availability of ingredients, is important at all times when putting a meal together. Clearly several centuries of generations have survived adequately with this method! There are some recipes, of course, where the exact quantities, or at least relative ratios of ingredients are crucial, such as in cake making and pastry making where the proportions of fat to flour are important but in most cooking of savoury meals the proportions are more a matter of taste and texture. So do not be afraid to use ‘enough’ or ‘plenty’ of any ingredient!
It was Eliza Acton (not Mrs Beeton!) who first wrote down recipes in her book ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ using exact measurements, unwittingly giving birth to the first cookery book and creating a format that is still the basis for recipe books today. Her book was published in 1845 and a second book on bread making was published in 1857. Modern Cookery was widely used and remained in print until 1910. It is still possible to buy a copy of Modern Cookery for Private Families (Classic Voices in Food). I wonder what she would think if she saw the proliferation of cookery books on the shelves of book shops and homes today! She may wonder why we need so many and be surprised at what she had started!
The book is a profile of the cooking of the time, and as such includes the cooking of many cuts of meat that we now rarely encounter. The cooking of vegetables is rather different with boiling times somewhat longer than what is recommended today and Eliza herself suggests that only ‘half-boiled’ vegetables are not good for the health! It is certainly worth having a look at this first manual of cooking and seeing what has changed and indeed the many recipes and methods that are just the same.
Eliza wrote her recipes for ‘elegance and economy’ and she was keen to avoid waste, which she comments on the preface to her book saying ‘ the daily waste of excellent provisions almost exceed belief’. Waste then is not the modern problem we assume it to be as it seems that households were grappling with it then, as they still are today. She believed that good food, well prepared should be served to replenish energy, as unhealthy food, poorly served was debilitating rather than health giving – again a sentiment often recognised in our own times!
Mrs Beeton used a similar format in her more famous Book of Household Management and, at least alledgedly, took some of Eliza’s recipes and ideas as her own. Mrs Beeton’s book is the better known and became the more popular book. It was written when she was just twenty-three. Despite its inconsistencies and sometimes strange advice (cheese is fit only for sedentary people) it was held in high regard by the household of the time.