A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #2

Dorothy Hartley was one of those quintessential independent English women with a no-nonsense attitude, a journalist who devoted her life to chronicling the fast-disappearing way of life in the English countryside of the 1930s. She wrote several books, including the 6-volume series, The Life and Work of the People of England.

And so here’s Book #2:


2. Food in England, by Dorothy Hartley (1954): Eccentric and dogmatic, that was Dorothy Hartley, the subject of a recent BBC documentary. Like our first author, Ms. White, Dorothy Hartley covered English culinary history via oral histories, as well as through recipes gleaned from various sources, mostly manuscripts and early printed cookbooks (for example, Boke of Good Manners,  dating to 1494). Her focus in Food in England lies squarely on the food ostensibly of the common folk.

Most telling of this focus is her comment rebuking all the tired quotes about food and cooking swirling around in culinary literature: “Realise that for centuries the swiftest transport was by horse (or water), and the only instantaneous communication was by beacon! (and that would not convey much culinary information beyond ‘Victorious soldiers celebrating’, so you kill the worst cow before they eat the best one; or ‘Not victorious – fleeing’, so you take the ham out the smoke hole and leave home).”

Twenty-seven chapters, that’s how comprehensive this book is. Meat to Eggs to Magic to Salting – nothing escapes Ms. Hartley’s notice. Even the summer pasture gets some ink, followed by a long exposition on the Industrial Revolution and what it meant for the English kitchen.

She titled her second chapter “Fuels and Fireplaces,” because before getting to the recipes, Ms. Hartley wanted readers to first understand that material culture – pots, pans, hearths, presses, etc. – enabled the cook to do the work of cooking. Ditto the producers of food – gardeners, shepherds, swineherds, dairywomen, etc. You’ll even find an essay about the food taken to the New World and a few words about the sailors’ cooks!

I have only one word for this book: Amazing. However,  Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Hampton Court, complains, and rightly so, that Ms. Hartley did not include footnotes; she did, however, often include source names, as well as a rather cursory bibliography, title and date. And, after following Ms. Hartley’s travels for a year for a BBC Four program, Dr. Worsley had this to say about Dorothy Hartley’s lack of footnotes: “… she knocked on the doors of farmhouses, and talked to countryside people who were still just about doing things the old, unchanging way, just before mass production and mechanisation and industrialisation swept it all away. … In this sense, it’s a work of oral history, as Dorothy was talking to the last generation to have had countryside lives sharing something in common with the Tudors.”

Again, oral history. And very pertinent to the study of English food history in the New World. Take, for example, the meat section, specifically the part pertaining to pork. Pigs’ ears. Pig’s Tail. Here we find a ragout of pigs’ ears from around 1680. The tail comes in for stock making. Gristle, you know. All this indicates – if you believe that culinary habits speak in the same terms as do oral legends such as Beowulf – that eating these parts of the pig didn’t suddenly appear in the British countryside in time for Ms. Hartley’s book nor is the practice related to the nose-to-tail work of chefs such as Fergus Henderson or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. No, the practice is long-standing. Recipes for pigs’ ears abound in the cookbooks of Hannah Glasse, E. Smith, and Maria Rundell. Note that Ms. Glasse’s and Ms. Smith’s cookbooks enjoyed wide popularity in Britain’s eighteenth-century colonies.

It’s heartening to find Dorothy Hartley digging into this past with such gusto and detail, without the sweeping generalizations of our day.

Filled with pithy quotes and the author’s own line drawings – not exactly Durer, but worthy of a museum or two – Food in England is just the book to take on the Queen Mary or a long weekend snuggled in a cabin in a patch of snowy mountains. And, of course, it’s a book that simply must stay on that bookshelf near your desk, for reference and inspiration and just plain enjoyment.

Check out all of the books in this series:

1. Florence White’s Good Things in England

2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England

3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles

4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen

5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things

6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book

7. Jane Grigson’s English Food

8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook

9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book

10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers 

12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston

13. Mary Gwynn’s The WI Cookbook

Millers cabin Smithfield crop

© 2015 C. Bertelsen


18 thoughts on “A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #2

  1. This sounds like a fantastic, amazing book, especially considering that food history, social history, and a woman doing them were not things that were done in the 1950s–at least not very often. It makes me think a bit of Alice Morse Earle and her books on colonial America.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s