How Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook gave its readers a recipe for power.
Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 1893 and you’re a young British woman planning a dinner party. You’re a newly minted member of the middle classes, eager to impress your guests. But with a new and baffling array of foodstuffs on offer, how on earth will you decide what to serve? Steamships and refrigeration mean that produce can now be imported from the farthest reaches of the empire. There are fresh bananas, fragrant crates of Assamese tea, and cheap wheat imports from Canada. You sigh, remembering the sad remains of this week’s roast still sitting in the pantry. Then you reach for Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a few cumin-scented pages the answer to your question.
Thank goodness, you think, for Isabella Beeton.
First published in 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a runaway best seller. Her book was exactly what would have appealed to a befuddled, newly urban, Victorian audience. Just one generation away from local seasonal produce, shops were suddenly bursting with cans, sauces and powdered stock. Aristocrats enthused over exotic fruit while impoverished workers were left to subside on “donkey’s tea,” a grim concoction of crusts steeped in boiling water.
In her book Food and Cooking in Victorian England, Andrea Broomfield points out that the Victorian era was a time of enormous social change. New technologies in transport, communication and agriculture upended not just how people lived but how they ate — and not always for the better. Unscrupulous salesmen often stretched their wares with whatever was available. Shoppers might find that their cocoa had been mixed with crumbled bricks, or their pepper with sand.
Like photos of farmhouse kitchens on Instagram, Mrs. Beeton’s book was an antidote to modern anxieties surrounding food. The book’s pastoral images of cows and jolly farmers had little to do with the urban existence of her middle-class readers. However, this was nostalgia combined with hardheaded practicality. Beeton’s recipes, priced by the ounce, were filled with quick, easy recipes for busy women.
This balance between soothing fiction and pragmatism is familiar to readers of most modern cookbooks. But Mrs. Beeton bore little resemblance to the celebrity chefs of today. For decades, she was marketed as a serious, rather conservative woman, well into middle age. Author Lytton Strachey commented that he imagined her as “a small tub-like lady in black.” In fact, the real Isabella Beeton died young, at the age of only 28, suffering from that scourge of Victorian womanhood, puerperal fever.
“She was married to a very important publisher, Samuel Beeton, and she was in charge of The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, which was one of Samuel’s most popular publications,” Broomfield tells me in an interview. “She was collecting the recipes for what became the Book of Household Management from the readership of the magazine. And she was also, what we would call today, plagiarising.”
Beeton had a magpie-like approach to assembly, borrowing many of her famous recipes from earlier cookbooks. “It wasn’t like a sense of cheating on her part; it was just simply done,” Broomfield explains. “She never attempted to pass all these recipes off as her own.”
After Mrs. Beeton’s death, her husband sold the rights to a publishing company. As the real woman faded from memory, her collection of recipes was transformed, with new recipes added to reflect the changing tastes of her readers. By the 1890s, Beeton’s international recipes extended far beyond the pseudo-French cuisine that the Victorians held so dear. Filled with casual racism and hairbrained stereotypes, the writing is a paean to empire building. But what did it mean to the Victorians to eat foods from abroad? Was it a subversive nod to other cultures or just another reinforcement of British superiority?
If she had any interest in the world beyond her borders, our young British dinner planner would probably have lingered longest on the Australian section. These recipes are nearly all illustrated by eye-catching drawings of wild game. There is a parrot pie decorated with the birds’ feet, like the beginning of a gruesome Monty Python sketch. On the same page, a lifelike roasted wallaby rests on a platter. Beeton also includes a number of recipes for kangaroo tails, both fricasseed and curried. What’s less clear is whether anyone actually prepared these recipes or if they were a reminder to British readers of a map painted pink.
Jacqui Newling, the resident gastronomer at Sydney Living Museums, tells me, “Kangaroo tails [were] definitely popular, and probably the most favorable cut of the animal. And anything that could be cooked could be curried, so curried tails are highly possible. Curries were as ubiquitous in Australia as anywhere in the Empire.” The earliest book of Australian cookery had a large number of kangaroo recipes, including one called Slippery Bob, a dish author Jan O’Connell alerted me to, where the animal’s brains were fried in emu fat.
Newling believes that Mrs. Beeton’s other game recipes are also plausible. “Roast Wallaby — definitely. Jointed or cooked whole,” she says. Parrot pie would also be likely, though the illustrated feet are probably an embellishment. It’s possible these recipes were for young British women going abroad, providing instruction on how to prepare the unfamiliar creatures they’d find in the bush. Still, by focusing on game, the recipes would also have been a reminder of empire. Even with the Victorians’ newly international palate, there wasn’t much demand for parrot pie in England. What was being eaten, however, was curry.
Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors and The Taste of Empire, tells me that by the time of Mrs. Beeton’s collection, curry was already a well-established British favorite, brought back by East India company merchants and their cooks. “They developed a very anglicized way of making curry, which is kind of like a spicy casserole. And that is very much what is appearing in Mrs Beeton’s cookery book. She’s given recipes for a very English, rather horrible, curry.”
And this transformation was about more than just flavor. By changing Indian recipes, the British were asserting ownership over the culture. “Putting a curry on the table demonstrates you’re able to eat the world. Being middle class and British, you rule a vast swathe of the world and you can put their food on your table,” Collingham explains. “I think that they saw it as foreign food, but they saw it as their foreign food. They are conscious that they’ve taken somebody else’s food and made it theirs.”
“In a way it’s a very good metaphor for the British having taken India and made India theirs,” she continues. “They saw India as their country, their territory; they owned India, and they could eat its food too.”
And this, sadly, was the attraction for many of Beeton’s British readers. It’s a reminder just how resistant we can be to acknowledging the influence of other cultures. At its best, food can open the door to other cultures. But cooking the world isn’t the same as seeing its people as equals. As the Victorians well understood, sometimes preparing food is also the perfect recipe for power.