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KeywordsCookery Colonialism Gastro-cosmopolitanism Domesticity Household management Imperialism
Cookbooks served as more than recipe collections for nineteenth-century readers. Cookbooks formed a lucrative publishing market for upwardly mobile middle-class women tasked with managing a household. Cookbooks provided instructions for buying food, managing a household budget, caring for ill relatives, preparing meals, and hiring domestic staff. Cookbooks illuminated women’s relationships with food and domesticity and created a middle-class culinary identity impacted by new technologies, methods of transportation, and upward social mobility. Many women learned foreign and domestic foods from reading cookbooks; these works also urged British women living abroad to keep current with imperial efforts by promoting native diets and standards of domesticity. Cookbooks provided a starting point for middle-class women to learn about domestic matters in increasingly modernized environments.
Since recipes and household management advice were typically passed down verbally from one generation to the next, cookbooks have their roots in the oral tradition. Throughout the nineteenth century, urbanization, steam power, and the railway impacted the way cooking traditions were shared and distributed. Access to regional food supplies changed because geographic and social mobility made trying new foods possible. Cookbook publishers targeted a burgeoning market for middle-class culinary communities. As domestic managers, women adapted to new ways of hiring staff and procuring foods. Urban kitchens usually had small food-preparation spaces, and the women who supervised these spaces had limited access to their mothers’ ways of domesticity given new technologies and methods of food transportation. Victorian cookbooks reminded women of how their foremothers managed domestic spaces and taught readers about how these spaces should operate under modernized circumstances. Cookbooks encouraged women to view their work as important for their families’ economic and nutritional wellbeing. Chef Alexis Soyer taught women to use offal, a practice that urban households had forgotten; his The Modern Housewife, or Ménagère (1849) functioned as an epistolary text, told by fictional household managers, and incorporated “a series of advice letters and recipes exchanged between the model housewife, Hortense, and the woefully inefficient housewife, Eloise L” (Broomfield 2007, 27). Cookbooks suggested that women were to blame for poorly run households. Cookbooks, as forms of recipe exchanges, had the capacity to network women through a support system since recipe writing is often understood as “working to draw together, memorialise and imagine supportive communities” (Floyd and Forster 2010, 5). Most cookbooks networked a narrowly defined community of women from similar class and racial backgrounds. Successful cookery books were targeted to the socially mobile individuals who created a lucrative literary market for these works.
Cookbooks and Victorian Identity
Since Victorians witnessed many individuals moving from rural to urban areas, new class-conscious culinary cultures emerged; cookbooks targeted their tastes. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the Victorian era’s most successful domestic management guide, provided recipes for turtle soup, an expensive dish, and mock turtle soup, an economical dish, to familiarize readers with budgeting for meals. The adage specifying “you are what you eat” certainly informs how cookbooks cultivated a middle-class identity based on culinary knowledge and household economics.
Cookbooks also introduced foreign foods to readers and encouraged them to provide meals that linked households to culinary experiences beyond the local dinner table. By presenting domestic dishes alongside international cuisines, cookbooks offered platforms for promoting gastro-cosmopolitan food choices since readers could attempt to “experience travel vicariously or to relive travel through the taste and smell of foods from distant lands” (Bullock 2012, 438). Domestic management guides provided insight into how women were to manage their households all while advancing imperial objectives.
Mrs. Beeton’s recipe for Sardinian Soup a la Solferino is packaged with commentary noting that the “anglicized” version was, according to the Englishman who contributed the recipe, somehow better than the original. By combining the domestic with the international, Victorian cookbooks often reflect how “the British version of political obliteration relies on not ethnic cleansing so much as ethnic incorporation” (Cozzi 2010, 83). Middle-class cookbooks sustained a readership with the means to be well-fed and constructed an identity centering on plentiful food supplies. This identity was linked to the “eminently bourgeois and absolutely imperial” (Zlotnick 2010, 74). Recipes were determined by and for the upwardly mobile, at home and abroad.
Imperial efforts attempted to “domesticate” foreign foods by blending British domestic traditions with international ones (Bullock 2012, 438). Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery in all its Branches (1845) consists of traditional English recipes as well as methods for preparing holiday fare, Christmas pudding, and roast goose. Modern Cookery also includes recipes for chutneys and curries, foods that British kitchens anglicized. Modern Cookery suggested that many foreign dishes belonged to Britain’s “national cookery” (Acton 1845, xi). Unpublished manuscript cookbooks written by Anglo-Indians recorded how Indian foods might be prepared to suit British tastes; Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888) instructed memsahibs about maintaining British standards of domesticity and diet while residing in India.
Feasts of Autolycus (1896), a collection of essays first published in the Pall Mall Gazette by American expatriate, Elizabeth Robins-Pennell, indicated that domestic management guides had saturated the market; Robins-Pennell instructed women “to eat (and now cook) with understanding” (Bullock 2012, 448). Robbins-Pennell moved women’s relationships with food beyond recipes and specified that women participate in the pleasures of gastronomy.
Isabella Beeton’s Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) became a cookbook classic and the authority on middle-class domestic management. Victorian cookbooks emphasized that a housewife’s identity depended on her culinary knowledge and success in managing a household. Cookbooks also incorporated imperial discourse that encouraged the blending of domestic and international cuisines. By the latter part of the Victorian era, Feasts of Autolycus encouraged women to enjoy their food instead of finding satisfaction simply by nourishing others.
- Acton, Eliza. 1845. Modern cookery and all its branches. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.Google Scholar
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