in the kitchen

If we were to step into the kitchen of a rectory in 1851, a number of differences would strike us immediately.  For one thing, there would have been no sink.  Kitchens in the mid-nineteenth century were for cooking only (at least in middle-class homes); washing up was done in a separate scullery . . . — which meant that every dish and pot had to be carried to a room across the corridor to be scrubbed, dried, and put away, then brought back to the kitchen the next time it was needed.  That could entail many trips, for the Victorians did a lot of cooking and provided an awesome array of dishes.  What Shall We Have For Dinner?, a popular book of 1851 by Lady Maria Clutterbuck (who was actually Mrs. Charles Dickens), gives a good impression of the kind of cooking that went on in those days.  One suggested menu–for a dinner for six people–comprises, “carrot soup, turbot with shrimp sauce, lobster patties, stewed kidneys, roast saddle of lamb, boiled turkey, knuckle of ham, mashed and brown potatoes, stewed onions, cabinet pudding, blancmange and cream, and macaroni.”  Such a meal, it has been calculated, could generate 450 pieces of washing up.  The swing door leading from the kitchen to the scullery must have swung a lot.

Had you arrived at the Old Rectory at a time when the housekeeper, Miss Worm, and her assistant, a nineteen-year-old village girl named Martha Seely, were baking or cooking, you may well have found them doing something that until recently had not been done at all–carefully measuring out ingredients.  Until almost the middle of the century instructions in cookbooks were always wonderfully imprecise, calling merely for “some flour” or “enough milk.”  What changed all that was a revolutionary book by a shy, sweet-natured poet in Kent named Eliza Acton.  Because Miss Acton’s poems weren’t selling, her publisher gently suggested she might try something more commercial, and in 1845, she produced Modern Cookery for Private Families.  It was the first book to give exact measurements and cooking times, and it became the work on which all cookbooks since have been, almost always unwittingly, modeled.

The book enjoyed considerable success but then was abruptly shouldered aside by a brasher work–the vastly, lastingly, powerfully, mystifyingly influential Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton.  There has never been another book quite like it, both for influence and content.  It was an instant success and would remain a success well into the following century.

Mrs. Beeton made clear that running a household was a grave and cheerless business: “As with the commander of an Army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.”  Only a moment earlier she had saluted her own selfless heroism:  “I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it,” she declared, leaving the reader with a sense of mild gloom and guilty indebtedness.

Bill Bryson’s book At Home A Short History of Private Life is chock-full of interesting facts and a delightful read!


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