“Common sense is not so common,” 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.
I certainly 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.
We stayed 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 amiss 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 woman.
She was born in 1837, the eldest girl in a family of 21. Her stepfather (her widowed mother had remarried) was in 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 Domestic Magazine.
Mrs. Beeton 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 presentation 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 of 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!).
Though Mrs. 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 of a 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.
Isabella Beeton 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 years.
That she managed to achieve so much (she also started another magazine, the Queen, which is still in print as Harper’s & 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.
Some 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 had only 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.
It didn’t last a week and 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 a 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.”
The 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 not so different from our own.
For example, 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 (zucchini) 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 Victorian houses.
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 eating 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. Meanwhile, the expanding British Empire had brought in new spices and created a fad for curry powder. When today we would use cloves, Mrs. Beeton favored 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 it’s easy to laugh at the many unlikely stories given for 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 modern and 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 transatlantic telegraph cable was laid and the age of the bicycle, the sewing machine and the train. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had been published two years before “Household Management,” and work had already begun on the first London subway route, which opened in 1864.
The world 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 daunting 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.