Cookbooks Tell Many Tales

The doorbell rang with that eerie little tinkle, the one you hear when you’re watching a movie and a phone rings somewhere off camera, unseen and slightly unnerving. I jumped up and ran to the door and yanked it open. Tires churning, the UPS truck took off, throwing gravel at a speed that would be criminal, provided a policeman lurked in the bushes, as they are wont to do around here.

Photo credit: Carol von Canon

I glanced down at my feet. The box lying on the doormat – about the size of the New York City Yellow Pages – looked light enough, just like all the other book-filled boxes  streaming into my house. But when I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a slight twinge in my back. This monster weighed about twenty pounds!

What book could I have ordered that weighed that much? Do publishers even print such elephantine books anymore? Sometimes. The buzz a while back in foodie circles surrounded the weight of certain cookbooks, as if it were something new to see beefy doorstoppers muscling out 90-pound weakling paperbacks.

Heaving the box onto my kitchen counter, I grabbed a paring knife and slid it along the tape holding the box together. And then the light bulb blazed. I remembered “The Aga with a Saga,” a news story in the Daily Mail, about a hidden Victorian kitchen in Wales, boarded off for 60 years. Estate-owner Archie Graham-Palmer and his wife Philippa found a cookbook along with pots and pastry cutters. Unfortunately, none of the news stories revealed the name of this cookbook in the midst of playing up the “Downton Abbey” overtones. Mr. Graham-Palmer remarked in an interview that the family needed an army of cooks to prepare the recipes.

And so I contacted Mr. Graham-Palmer about this and he graciously replied: the mystery cookbook they found carried a slightly presumptuous title, The Ideal Cookery Book, by Margaret Alice Fairclough, first published in London in 1908 by George Routledge and Sons, Limited. The Graham-Palmers’ book dates to 1911.

And that’s what nestled under the bubble wrap in that hefty box. Available online, too,  The Ideal Cookery Book came complete with almost 300 illustrations, including 48 color plates drawn by Alexander Hamilton Sands. Note that I am not going into a lot of discussion of individual recipes, since you the reader might find it more exciting to stumble over the choice nugget or two that always surfaces in these delicious old books.

Ms. Fairclough served as principal at the Gloucester Road School of Cookery at 84 Gloucester Road in London, after learning cookery at the National Training School for Cookery. Other than that, she flits through the pages, a phantom lady in white wielding an opinionated pen, giving precise measurements and instructions. Although I have not yet done so, I would venture to guess that you and I could actually cook these recipes and see some pretty nice results.

She derived many of her recipes from Charles Herman Senn‘s book, Senn’s Century Cookbook (1901) and Auguste Escoffier’s A Guide to Modern Cooking (1903, translated into English in 1907). The Ideal Cookery Book illustrates just how pervasive French cuisine became among the British upper class in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (See my previous post: “The Duke of Newcastle’s Pique, or, a Good Chef is Hard to Find.”)

The majority of the recipe titles appear in French, rarely followed by an English translation. No surprise there, really, given the desire of the British upper class for French food and the status it conferred. But Ms. Fairclough’s training provides another reason for The Ideal Cookery Book‘s emphasis on all things French: she trained at the National Training School for Cookery, with Mr. Senn, who cooked at the Reform Club with the French chef Alexis Soyer.

Most chapters start with brief admonishments and rules of cookery necessary to enhance the successful cook’s output. But as I turned the pages, the  firm creamy paper showing no sign of acid rot eating away words, I found a chapter (X) devoted to Indian Dishes (Curries, ETC.), all calling for the tinned curry powder becoming more and popular in England at the time. Ms. Fairclough didn’t fuss with French linguistics here: the recipe titles speak the King’s English. What could be blunter than Chapter XXV: Invalid Dishes – Invalid Drinks? Another chapter – Chapter XXX. Breads, Cakes, Biscuits, ETC. – focuses on what looks like typical British home baking recipes, an interesting aspect of this French-inspired book. The book leaves out the housekeeping-related features that defined earlier British cookbooks.

Some speculations and what-ifs seem to be in order now.

Might we surmise that the chief cooks/chefs in households like that of the Graham-Palmers were always French? Or that the cooks knew enough kitchen French to muddle through? Seeing a tome like this one, actually found in a British kitchen, brings up a lot of questions. What about literacy in general? The prevailing idea about cooks is that they were slovenly, illiterate, and difficult. But evidence suggests the contrary. Cooks needed to be literate AND numerate. And many of them were. (See The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France for more on this topic.)

So, within their own country, the British experienced a sort of culinary exile, dating from the times of Charles II (b. 1630) and even before. Florence White tried to remedy this state of affairs  in Good Things in England (1932), a foray into British cooking from the pre-French period. That meant she needed to dig pretty deeply into the past.

Does this mean that the cooking of the very earliest English settlers in North America, at Jamestown and Plymouth, represented a “purer” form of English food than we see later? That when the Huguenots arrived in Virginia around 1701 that their manner of cooking and serving food jibed surprisingly well with what they found already in place?

Cookbooks indeed tell tales, don’t they?

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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