Before There was Martha S., There was Martha B.*

Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife (1756) has long fascinated me, for all her detail and  precise instructions. And, most of all,  for her emphasis on local foods, long before Alice Waters or Michael Pollan were gleams in the eye of God.

Of course, the other point I want to make here is this: the English were quite conversant about fresh vegetables and knew what to do with them, not needing the tutelage of anyone to teach them otherwise.

Everyone knows what a cookbook is, yes? A book of recipes. Prolific culinary bibliographer Henry Notaker suggests that two-thirds of the book ought to consist of material pertaining to food, with 40-50 percent of that in the form of “receipts” or recipes.


noun \ ‘ku̇k-ˌbu̇k\

: a book of recipes : a book of directions explaining how to prepare and cook various kinds of food (Merriam-Webster)
Bradley text January vegs
January, for those of us above 35 longitude, offers very little in the way of freshly grown local vegetables. After a week of solid clouds, and planning a foray to the local Kroger, I decided to see what 18th-century cookbook author Martha Bradley would recommend to me, cooking for a small household and not a grand manor house. These days cookbooks proliferate at the speed of light, or so it seems. Books similar in spirit to Mrs. Bradley’s crop up like mushrooms, seemingly overnight. And most of them attempt to entice their readers by waggling carrots and kale in front of them, catering to the current fad of locally grown fresh food, frankly a bit of a misnomer when there’s a few inches of snow that refuses to melt.

This goes to prove that not a whole lot has changed over the centuries. If Ann Willan is right, as she suggests in her Cookbook Family Tree, only four books – so-called “Eves” – act as the mothers of cookbook-kind:

  • Le viandier,” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel), French, 1486.
  • Kűchenmeystery,” German, 1485 (author unknown) [Note: Willan misspelled this title in her book)

But what’s a recipe? The concept changed over time. In the beginning, a list of ingredients, maybe, at minimum. Then later there’s more: action words appear, such as “Take,” a usage stemming from the Latin recipere, a practice that began in the earliest days and continued on in early English cookery texts at times as “Nym water” and “Nym swete mylk,” “nym” showing the connection of English to German, in this case nehmen,  “to take.”

True, this sort of commentary on cookbooks pops up everywhere in the world of culinary history. The important thing, I keep reminding myself, is that cookbooks as we know them may well be an eighteenth-century phenomenon, fueled by many cultural trends of the times. (See Sandra Sherman,  Invention of the Modern Cookbook, 2010). These were the cookbooks that may have been owned by the families that ventured away from Europe, into the world of colonialism, the books that tied them to the hearth and sod of their homelands, or at least to the food that their servants might have cooked. Surprisingly little is known about just what cookbooks sailed with the earliest settlers and colonists, though we do know that Gervase Markham made it across the Atlantic at least once. Later evidence – such as newspaper ads – often indicate what cookbooks were available for purchase, as with Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, advertised often in Williamsburg’s The Virginia Gazette.

Cookbooks, like much in the way of fashion and literature and design, have changed over time in many ways. And one reason why old cookbooks still have much to offer us so-called moderns lies not so much in the actual making of the recipes – though that in itself is a worthy pursuit on many levels and best saved for another post, but rather in the very manufacture of the books, the information found in the frontispieces (artwork opposite the title page or verso) and title pages (recto). (For fun, and some edification, see Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971, exhibition catalog, Metropolitan Museum of Art.) The point of going on about all this is to suggest that as non-Western cultures began to adopt the cookbook, the model turned to by authors would mostly likely be that of the European cookbook, even though examples of culinary writing do exist in various cultures, as with A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era As Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, etc., a subject that I want to pursue more in depth.

Originally printed in a series beginning in 1756, Martha’s cookbook later appeared as a complete book in two volumes in 1758, totaling a whopping 725 pages. The book – organized by season, with a month-by-month compendium of ingredients – well represents a number of trends ongoing in England at the time, namely that 1) female authors were becoming mainstream contributors to cuisine, something that did not happen in France until much later; 2) subtle disdain for French culinary ways was increasing, even though Martha Bradley ; and 3) that even women of the lower  classes could better themselves through cooking. The book never quite reached the pinnacle of commercial success seen by Elizabeth Raffald or Hannah Glasse, and –  truth be told – Bradley co-opted a number of Glasse’s recipes as was the practice at the time,  and her work shows signs of the influence of Patrick Lamb and Vincent La Chapelle as well. Yet Gilly Lehman titled her analysis of eighteenth-century British cookbooks as The British Housewife. In contrast to, say, Elizabeth Raffald (see Roy Shipperbottom’s piece about her in Cooks & Other People), not much is really known about Martha herself, save what appears on the title page (see below), but Mrs. Bradley’s personality comes through loud and clear in her book, which serves as a good introduction to her attitudes toward many things, not just cooking!

“Our Cook … will be able to shew that an English girl, properly instructed at first, can equal the best French Gentleman in everything but Expence. It is only in the being better taught at first, that these Foreigners excel our own people; let them have the same Advantages, and they may defy them. It is this we have endeavoured to give them in the present Book, and we hope we have hitherto succeeded.” (I: 314, Prospect Books edition)

And she firmly believed that practice makes perfect: Practice is all; for as the Children play at Bilbecket till they can catch the Ball every Time for many Minutes in the same Manner the Cook will be able to toss a hundred Pancakes without missing once, when she is accustomed to the Method of it. (IV: 571, Prospect Books edition)

The following frontispiece – the word comes from the French word frontispice, originally an architectural term referring to decorations of the facade of a building – comes from Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife:

Bradley art frontpiece
Frontispiece, Martha Bradley’ s The British Housewife

Although frontispieces purportedly shows scenes like this, as with all art and photography, a small grain of salt must be taken, as with a well-salted margarita. But here we see what appears to be a kitchen set up for roasting meat (and catching the drippings, the layout of a hearth for boiling, as well as a work table for making pies and storing tools. The wall above the hearth holds other tools and pot lids, while the far wall stores plates, and the ceiling grate supports the weight of what looks like a ham.  And the kitchen space speaks of the size of the household, not one found in a grand palace. ‘Docet parva pictura, quod multae scripturae non dicunt.’

But it’s the title page, much like the first sentence in today’s book – the lead, in other words, that beguiles the reader most and draws her (or him) in. What does this single sheet of paper reveal about Martha Bradley?

Martha Bradley frontpiece 2
Title Page, Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife

Mrs. Bradley aims her book, note, at readers in the country (provinces) as well as London. The cook, the housekeeper, and gardener will find something useful in the book, she suggests, by emphasizing those professions in a larger font. The key word throughout appears to be “Ingredients.” She states that she covers fresh provisions, but the greatest emphasis lies with pickling and preserving. Following that comes the signal that the book provides a guide to getting through the year, seasonality as it were, a “Bill of Fare for each Month.” A wide range of dishes is promised, and not costly ones either, foretelling the surge toward economy in the cookbooks of the 19th century, indicating that grand households were not of the greatest concern to the author. She includes “Foreign” ingredients, too, belying the increasing commerce and travel of the British as their empire bloomed. She even suggests that illiterate persons will benefit from her book, due to the “curious copper plates” … “by which even those who cannot read will be able to instruct themselves.” Finally, at the end, Mrs. Bradley lets it be known that she comes from Bath, a very fashionable place to be indeed, and that she possesses “upwards of Thirty Years Experience.” And she ends her advertisement, for that is what it is, with a most telling word: “Practice.”

Thus she seals the deal by pointing out her street creds, making sure that her platform, brand, niche, whatever rests in the reader knowing of “what is necessary to be done in Providing for, Conducting, and Managing a Family throughout the Year.” Mrs. Bradley’s contribution to the world of cookery takes many tacks, but very possibly the greatest of them is this: for the first time a female author writes for the housewife and not the lady of the manor.

Read more about Martha Bradley in my book:

“A Hastiness of Cooks”: A Practical Handbook
for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries
of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks,
For Living-History Reenactors,
Historians, Writers, Chefs,
and, of Course, Cooks – soon on Amazon!


© 2019 C. Bertelsen


* Thanks to Courtney Nzeribe for the idea for the title of this post, which is based upon a chapter in my book. The eggplant drawing is one of Courtney’s. Martha S. is, of course, Martha Stewart.

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