is nothing common about Common Sense," Voltaire once wrote, and
although the irascible Frenchman was writing more than 70 years
before she was born, he would undoubtedly have appreciated Isabella
Beeton as a very uncommon woman indeed.
did, stumbling across her one and only book not too long after my
parents had run away from home.
I was 17 or
so at the time, and they'd taken it on the lam to California. My
sister and I, whose sole experience of America was Columbus, Ohio,
with its blistering summers and freezing winters, assumed that all
of America was the same and wanted no part of it.
behind in Liverpool, England, defiantly rebellious, and soon discovered,
as many had before us, that defiant rebellion is all very well,
but sooner or later you have to eat. And in common with many other
defiantly rebellious souls, we couldn't boil an egg.
It was at
this point that I came across a massive book at my grandmother's
house that seemed to have all the answers. A heavy tome about 3
inches thick, "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" featured
detailed instructions on such useful topics as how to poach an egg
(with or without a poacher), how to make an omelet and how to tell
whether fish is fresh. She explained how to set the table, how to
clean stains and how to hire the servants.
OK, so that
last one wasn't really useful to us, but even there her ideas would
not be out of place in the modern corporate human resources setting.
Isabella Beeton, it turned out, was not just some 19th century Martha
Stewart, but a true innovator and an early example of a professional
She was born
in 1837, the eldest girl in a family of 21. Her stepfather (her
widowed mother had remarried) was is charge of printing for the
Derby racetrack at Epsom Downs, and little Isabella, along with
the rest of the brood, had the run of the track during the off-season.
Such an upbringing
taught her the importance of organization and careful accounting,
skills that she took to London when she married Sam Beeton in 1856.
He had made his mark as the publisher of the first British edition
of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," shortly after which he started the Englishwoman's
joined that enterprise, first penning the advice column and then
moving on to cookery and housework. Her columns were published in
book form in 1861 as her "Book of Household Management."
Many of her
innovations in the preparation of recipes remain standard practice
today. She included preparation and cooking times and noted how
many each recipe would feed and what each would cost. Most important,
she began each recipe with a list of ingredients with precise measurements,
stating in her introduction, "
[A]ll those indecisive terms
expressed by a bit of this, some of that, a small piece of that
and a handful of the other, shall never be made use of, but all
quantities be precisely and explicitly stated."
She went on
to explain exactly what each measurement was. For example, a tablespoon
is "a measure of bulk equal to that which would be produced by half
an ounce of water." A dessert spoon is half a tablespoon, a drop
is 1/60th of a fluid dram (that is, 1/480 pf a fluid ounce), etc.
To make things even easier, she numbered not only the recipes, but
every paragraph of text in the book, making cross-reference a breeze
(someone should revive that one!).
Beeton did not create the recipes in her book, she (along with her
cook and kitchen maid) did test every single one, rejecting the
elaborate concoctions favored by professional cooks like Charles
Francatelli (chef to Queen Victoria) and selecting only those appropriate
for middle-class homes. Her skills were those of an editor and teacher,
lending firm but gentle guidance to the new housekeeper, a role
more needed in the industrial mid-19th century than it had been
in earlier centuries, when people were more likely to settle close
to home. This book was designed for the woman who was separated
from the advice of family, whether by the distance to the next village
or of an ocean.
died in 1865 at the age of 28 of puerperal fever after giving birth
to her fourth child, an ironic end for a woman so dedicated to cleanliness
(puerperal fever was caused by the unwashed hands of doctors). Her
heartbroken husband spent the rest of his life reprinting and updating
his wife's great work, which remained in print for more than 50
That she managed
to achieve so much (she also started another magazine, The Queen,
which is still in print as Harpers & Queen), with such common sense
and evident good humor at such an early age, impresses me just as
much now as when I first encountered her book. Much of the enjoyment
in reading Mrs. Beeton, however, comes from the non-cooking information.
Each section of the book was prefaced with a few pages of general
instruction, and most of the recipes had interesting notes appended
in smaller type.
of them were practical, such as details on growing certain plants
or where particular meats were raised. But many were just fascinating
diversions, connected to the recipe by the most slender of threads-water
in ancient Rome, the discovery of roast pork (supposedly by an ancient
Croatian villager who accidentally set his house on fire), the geology
of the hills of southeast England, and the disposition (bad temper)
of the turkey, to name but a few.
Drawn in by
such entertaining asides, I joined the vast ranks of women who,
since 1861, have found themselves indebted to this extraordinary
woman. I learned how to boil that egg, make that omelet and roast
a chicken. But it wasn't until I branched out and decided to try
something else that I discovered the true treasures in the book.
It was the
oxtail soup that did it. Now, I'd always loved oxtail soup, but
I'd only ever had the canned variety. The recipe sounded straightforward,
it sounded easy, and it sounded as if it made enough to feed (a)
an army, or (b) me and my sister for a week and a half.
last a week and a half. Flavored with Port, it is deep and comforting
in a way only winter soups can be. It smells of home and roaring
fires and holidays. It is fabulous.
I tried the
poulet à la Marengo, one of the few recipes in the book to include
garlic. Moving on to the vegetable dishes, I dared Fried Cucumbers
(cucumber fritters that Mrs. Beeton suggested serving with steak),
baked mushrooms and asparagus peas (asparagus cut into pea-sized
bits and cooked in a cream sauce). I moved on to desserts, trying
Manchester Pudding and her sumptuous Chocolate Cream, among others.
At the back
of the book, following the recipes and executive advice, were long
menus for each month. From extravagant dinners for 18, through smaller
and smaller numbers until she arrived at "Plain Family Dinners."
for 18 included suggested table layouts for each successive course,
each one of which looks, to modern eyes, like enough food for a
week. The family dinners are far more conservative and reflect middle
class eating habits that are not so different from our own.
in January she suggests roast rolled ribs of beef with greens, potatoes
and horseradish, followed by bread and butter pudding and cheesecakes.
Or for a Sunday in August, vegetable marrow (squash) soup, roast
quarter of lamb with mint sauce, French beans and potatoes, followed
by raspberry and currant tart and custard pudding. None of it was
exactly low in fat, but it probably kept them warm in those chilly
It isn't just
the similarities to today's food, or the extreme differences, that
make Mrs. Beeton's book interesting today. In many ways it is the
smaller changes in habits and tastes.
Today we like
garlic with practically everything and expect all sorts of dishes
to bristle with peppers. But in the mid-19th century, garlic was
regarded with grave suspicion. On the other hand, the expanding
British Empire had brought in new spices and created a fad for curry
powder. Where today we might use cloves, Mrs. Beeton is still using
those 18th century favorites, nutmeg and mace, which show up in
recipe after recipe.
In a throwback
to the Middle Ages, ground almonds still make an occasional appearance
as a thickening agent. But above all, modern readers cannot help
but be impressed by the copious amounts of butter and cream.
As we browse
through the book, with its wobbly typeface and detailed engravings,
it seems so long ago, and its easy to laugh at the many unlikely
stories of how recipes originated, or the hopelessly garbled history.
But it's important to remember that to Mrs. Beeton and her contemporaries,
their world was as changeable as our own. It may have been the age
of the crinoline and the open fire, but it was also the time in
which the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was laid and the
age of the bicycle, the sewing machine and the train. Charles Darwin's
"On the Origin of Species" has been published two years before "Household
Management," and work was already begun on the first London subway
route, which opened in 1864.
in which Mrs. Beeton lived was one of rapid change, of mobility
and invention. People were exploring tastes and experiences from
all over the world, and the household was a part of that journey.
For the first
time in history, people weren't destined to live all their lives
in one socioeconomic stratum. Social mobility was pursued with gusto
on both sides of the Atlantic, and people who had grown up with
nothing were frequently faced with the dilemmas of hiring servants,
running a growing household and hosting elegant dinners.
It was for
these people and in this modern world that Mrs. Beeton lived and
wrote, not as some fading violet of romance, but as one of the first
truly modern women.