15 APRIL 2000, Page 31


What's for dinner?' Laurent said last Thursday, coming in and sniffing dubi- ously at the vast array of copper pans steaming away on the stove. 'Boiled half a calf s head, pickled pork, the tongue on a small dish with the brains round it, mutton cutlets and mashed pota- toes, plum tart made with bottled fruit, baked custard pudding and baroness pud- ding, since you ask,' I said. 'Mon dieu,' he said. 'Phil. Phil. Speak to me. What in the name of Brillat-Savarin is baroness pudding? What has happened to you?'

'Mrs Beeton,' I said. 'It's her recommen- dation for a plain family dinner in March. Croquettes of leveret tomorrow.' Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, like Self-Help or How To Make Friends and Influence People, barely seems to be a book at all; more of a fact in the history of the English mind. It is surely the most interesting of unread English books. It tells us, through omission, sugges- tion and implication, as well as through its direct statements, much more about the 19th-century bourgeois mind than the most perceptive political theorist can hope to. It is mainly a cookery book, but it is much more than a series of dishes. It is a moral Journey, and, in retrospect, a uniquely inti- mate domestic portrait of the age. Through its didactic intentions, it describes, with marvellous, unforgettable vividness, the dreams and reality of a whole society, and Oxford University Press are to be congrat- ulated on bringing out this abridged edition and bringing it to the attention of a new and curious audience.

Mrs Beeton had a thrilling and extraordi-

Dream the impossible lunch

Philip Hensher

MRS BEETON'S BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT edited by Nicola Humble OUP, £7.99, pp. 629 nary, if short, life. Her stepfather, who brought her and her 20 siblings and half- siblings up, was Clerk of the Course at Epsom. He solved the pressing problems of the requirements of space in his gigantic family by the novel method of housing the elder children in the grandstand, where they slept in the committee rooms and ate in the saloon. She was, unusually for the age, sent abroad to continue her education in Heidelberg, where learning to cook, unlike in England, was regarded as a prop- er accomplishment for gentlewomen. Returning to England, fluent in French and German, she married Sam Beeton, a successful 25-year-old publisher, and embarked on a busy career as a journalist and translator. Her career culminated in the massive and synoptic Household Man- agement, which sold two million copies in its first eight years, effectively turning her into a trademark. She had four children, of whom two survived; she died giving birth to the last, at the age of 28. The best biogra- phy of her is by Nancy Spain.

Cookery books are a fascinating, ancient literary genre. They are as difficult to 'read', to use as evidence of the society that produced them, as poetry. There were famous cooks in antiquity, as described in James Davidson's wonderfully entertaining book, Courtesans and Fishcakes. Plato has preserved, in the Gorgias, the name of the Marco Pierre White of antiquity, Mithae- cus of Syracuse. There is even a recipe by him: for wrasse: 'Cut off the head of the ribbon fish. Wash it and cut into slices. Pour cheese and oil over it.' That seems to be a practical sort of advice, only marred by his forgetting to tell you to cook the thing. But already in antiquity, the other crucial aspect of the cookbook is in evi- dence. Apicius, the great Roman cook, has, not unfairly, been associated by posterity with the same sort of luxurious and osten- tatious cooking as the food in Petronius' Satyricort, which is surely designed with a voyeuristic sort of social aspiration and not ordinary appetite in mind.

And, ever since, cookbooks have been written with two quite distinct purposes. On the one hand, we have the pedagogic tome, which aims to teach the reader how to cook, if not how to improve one's life — there is often a fiercely moralistic under- tone in a genre which must inevitably con- sider family life, waste, luxury and propriety. On the second hand, there is the voyeuristic tome, which is not intended to produce cooks, but to inspire the reader to the contemplation of some better life. This is not a new phenomenon, though the age of the television chef has produced both the moral purity and educative fervour of Delia Smith, starting from scratch, and the off-duty restaurateurs who aim only to entertain — has anyone ever actually tried to cook one of the improvised recipes on Ready, Steady, Cook? Everyone has those spectacular cookbooks, full of dishes only reasonably attainable if one had half a dozen sous-chefs at one's disposal and nothing better to do; everyone reads them, and is soothed by the vicarious labour.

The Lamprey It's often thought that these cookbooks are a product of our age, a symptom of a decadent age which prefers to read about elaborate cooking and to phone out for a pizza. But the interesting thing is that the distinction is exactly that of the 19th centu- ry. If we have celebrity chefs, the 19th cen- tury had Alexis Soyer, the chef of the Reform Club, whose fame was colossal and whose cookbooks, similarly, proposed dish- es a very long way from normal bourgeois eating habits. He is memorably caricatured by Thackeray in Pendennis as Mirabolant.

The genius of Mrs Beeton was to per- ceive that the aspirational element in Soyer was not in itself deplorable. Cookbooks ought to contain some incitement to glam- our, though, with nothing but glamour, the result was bound to be finally arid. As Roland Barthes saw when writing about the 1960s recipes in Elk magazine, aimed at a working-class readership and full of descriptions of boned quail stuffed with ceps, pure aspiration, in the end, has noth- ing to do with food.

Household Management is essentially a practical and sensible book for the new middle classes — Mrs Beeton herself was upwardly mobile to a stratospheric degree. But it is fascinatingly leavened with impos- sible recipes, designed only to make the reader dream of a better life, where duchesses nibble on larks' tongues. There is a tremendous vulnerability to romances of waste and excess here; Brillat Savarin's tale of the prince whose cook boiled down 15 hams into a single phial of essence clearly thrills her. Some of the recipes, in practice, would be as disgusting as a dinner with Sir Epicure Mammon — 'To Dress Truffles with Champagne', for instance. There is an absorbing recipe for turtle soup, which begins airily, 'To make this soup with less difficulty, cut off the head of the turtle the preceding day.' As Nicola Humble remarks in her excellent notes to this edition, 'It is extremely unlikely that Beeton had ever herself seen, let alone despatched, a huge live turtle.'

In short, there is a glamorous aspect to the whole which permits not just the bour- geoisie, but the working-class servants who would be the heaviest users of the book, to dream of self-improvement. And that is still the case; an hour with a pencil translat- ing 19th-century sums into present day equivalents allowed me to work out that in Mrs Beeton's opinion I ought to be able to run to a cook, housemaid, nursemaid and footboy, and permitted an hour of pleasant dreams of idleness.

Nevertheless, the fundamental purpose of Mrs Beeton is profoundly practical; it would not have lasted so well without that. Easy to laugh at her 'Useful Soup for Benevolent Purposes', but it is a good soup. Some of her recipes now seem extremely odd. I puzzled and puzzled over the uses to which toast is put in her recipes for convalescents, including, bafflingly, 'Toast Sandwich' (Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread- and-butter in the form of a sandwich'). But the fish and meat dishes are almost all highly usable — for me, the smartest and best fish dishes are all Victorian ones — and the soups and puddings as reliable as one would expect.

So what did she think she was doing? Mrs Beeton lived in an age, rather like ours, where domesticity seemed to be on the wane. In her preface, she remarks that: Men are now so well served out of doors at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining- houses, that in order to compete with the attractions of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home.

Isabella Beeton's aim was to tempt the overworked wastrel back into the home by the seductive excellence of the establish- ment.

Cooking, for her, was not an isolated Macaroni accomplishment, but one which took its place in a whole range of domestic tasks. The book is primarily about cooking, but around it are fascinating pieces of advice concerning how to choose one's friends, when to visit, how to dress, the upbringing of children, and, most interestingly, what one might term amateur medical advice. Of this, the most obviously intriguing is the passage on female hysterics, which clearly admits that 'these fits take place, for the most part, in young, nervous, unmarried women'; it would be interesting to know whether Mrs Beeton herself considered that hysteria was cured by sexual experi- ence or by childbearing. It is, in a way, a practical equivalent of Coventry Patmore's long poem, 'The Angel in the House'; an idea of seductive domesticity which achieved its aim of changing society, and might still have some force in it, however much it condemned women to lives of helpless drudgery.

And yet Beeton is not opposed to female emancipation, and it is possible to see her as a powerful agent of change in women's lives. Nicola Humble says very convincingly in her introduction that the problem with the education of gentlewomen until that point was that it was always seen in terms of 'accomplishments', and odd scraps of isolated information never coalesced into a whole. Mrs Beeton's great virtue was, as Humble says, that she set a coherent body of knowledge about domestic tasks in the context of the natural world. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes, such as the one about the Serbian brigand who said that when he was hungry he ran over the nearest animal, cut off a steak and salted it, put it under his saddle and, after half an hour of hard riding, ate it.

But the book also offers her readers more substantial facts about Linnaeus's categories of living beings, and — in theory, anyway — fits them to start to read Darwin. It is deeply interested in the world, even if, once filtered through the book's concerns, that comes down to (surprisingly accurate) accounts of Mediterranean eat- ing habits (you could certainly buy good olive oil, pasta and Parmesan cheese in London in the 1860s) and a large number of Raj favourites. The programme of improvement starts with plum pudding; no- one could have said where it would end. Everyone knows that food is a potent agent for social improvement, carried out through snobbery; the genius of Mrs Bee- ton was to perceive that it could be a tool for education and intellectual betterment as well.

I'm still not quite sure about those lev- eret croquettes, though.