Modern Cookery for Private Families
by Eliza Action
Publisher: Quadrille, Country: UK
ISBN: 9781844009596, Year: 2011
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Publishers Quadrille have produced a version of Eliza Acton’s famous Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845. Essential reading for anyone interested in food and history, so much of what Eliza Acton had to say is as true today as it was more than 150 years ago. Acton gives valuable insight into the Victorian kitchen, and her prose is a pleasure to read.

Full review

Eliza Acton was born in 1799, her father was a brewer and she was the eldest of five children. As a young woman she had travelled to France and had published a volume of romantic poetry which had been modestly successful. When she brought to her publishers a further selection of poems in 1837, it was suggested – unlikely as it might sound – that she write something more practical and popular, like a recipe book. Whether or not Miss Acton – in her late thirties, unmarried and living at home with her mother – had any experience of cooking, she could certainly recognise a good idea and she returned in 1845 with the manuscript of Modern Cookery for Private Families. The new version from publishers Quadrille (part of their Classic Voices in Food series) is based on the revised edition published in 1855. Modern Cookery ran to 40 editions (the last was 1908) and sold 60,000 copies.

Acton’s book was written for ‘the young housekeepers of England’ and in its 33 chapters covers everything the modern Victorian woman would need to know, from soups, gravies, sauces, pickles and preserves, to fish, shell-fish, all types of meat, boiled and baked puddings, cakes, bread and even ‘foreign and Jewish cookery’. Credited with being the first truly modern cookery writer Acton’s lasting contribution to the genre was not just her recipes but the way she presented them. Most of her ‘receipts’ are followed by a summary ‘of the different ingredients which they contain, with the exact proportion of each, and the precise time required to dress the whole’ – in other words, she was the first to include an ingredient list with her recipes. Just as novel was the fact that her recipes had been ‘proved beneath our own roof and under our own personal inspection’ and could therefore be ‘perfectly depended on’. And because she had taken the trouble to test and experiment she was able to add her own observations (these appear at the end of the recipes and many come with a comment such as excellent, delicious, economical) and hints where necessary. By her ‘thoroughly explicit and minute instructions’ she intended that her recipes should be ’so practical, clear, and simple, as to be at once understood, and easily followed, by those who had no previous knowledge of the subject’.

Reading her book today it is easy to see why it was such a success. Her recipes are models of clarity, albeit in a tone that is somewhat quaint to the modern ear, and most of them can be followed just as successfully today as they would have been in 1845. That said, few present-day readers will find Modern Cookery entirely satisfactory as a source of inspiration in the kitchen because all the recipes require some translation – none include cooking temperatures for example and all the quantities are given in pints, pounds and ounces, although in the Quadrille edition there is a conversion chart supplied for the more adventurous.

For me, the real appeal of Acton’s book is the insight it gives into the Victorian kitchen and the pleasure of reading Acton’s prose. She writes with enthusiasm, authority and confidence, much like Elizabeth David or the Australian chef Stephanie Alexander, so it is little wonder that David considered Modern Cookery ‘the greatest cookery book in our language’. Acton’s breadth of knowledge may come as a surprise with recipes ranging from boiled calf’s head to Risotto a la Milanese, with many other Italian recipes (macaroni and polenta), French and German dishes, recipes ‘appropriate to the Jewish table’ and, less surprisingly, recipes for curries and curry powders.

The food on the Victorian dinner table had the potential to be appetising and varied, although it might only have been the tables of the wealthier, more urban families which ran to such variety. The best pasta for example was to be had from Mr Cobbett’s of Pall Mall which ‘is not a professedly cheap house, but all that he supplies is of excellent quality’. It is also sobering to consider the amount of work involved in kitchens where meat was still roasted on the spit, all grinding was done in a mortar and pestle and jellies were made from scratch by boiling up calves feet. The good Victorian cook needed a thorough grounding in basic techniques and a feel for what she was doing and the equipment she was using, while modern cooks rely on gadgets and processed foods. What is clear from Acton’s recipes is the debt that subsequent generations of recipe writers owe to her thorough and detailed instructions. (Not least of all the much better known Mrs Beeton, who relied heavily on Acton’s work.)

Modern Cookery is essential reading for anyone interested in food and history, but all cooks would benefit from even a brief association with Eliza Acton since so much of what she has to say is as true today as it was more than 150 years ago. For example, she begins her preface with

It cannot be denied that an improved system of practical domestic cookery, and a better knowledge of its first principles, are still much needed in this country.

which just goes to show plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose - a phrase with which Miss Acton may well have been familiar.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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