This book (by Andrea Broomfield, 2007), while not on the summer reading list (which I’m still slogging through, thank you very much), was a fortuitous find in the university library. I was browsing through the cookbook section one day (this is what I do on my breaks) and my eye fell on this book. I figured it would be a sort of sensationalized look at all the weird stuff that people in England used to eat (Spotted Dick! Toad-in-the-Hole!), so I picked it up.
After the first few pages, though, I was totally hooked. It was one of those nonfiction page-turners, one that you can’t put down, even though you realize that you’re learning things about history and stuff.
This book is far more than a silly look at a few old timey recipes, though it does include some recipes. No, this book takes a look at human history (in England) and how changes in technology, industrialization, British politics, British colonialism, and immigration/emigration affected and changed the way that British people cooked and ate.
The book begins with a comparison of cookbooks, as well it should, for cookbooks (or really journals, as they were handwritten records of a particular household’s cooking habits) are one of the author’s primary sources. She (the author) contrasts two cookbooks, one written in the late 18th century, the other written throughout the early to mid-19th century. The inclusion or exclusion of ingredients, the directions for cooking, the tools and technology that each cookbook writer had available in her household–all of these illuminate the food and cooking situation for their own time and place.
The book attempts to give equal time to both middle-class and upper-class food habits, and the author mentions lower class eating, but doesn’t deal with it in as much depth.
One of the most fascinating chapters is one in which the author takes us through a typical day in the life of a middle-class Victorian household. Broomfield laid the ground work for talking about class in the Victorian era, and described this family as a first generation middle-class family, and therefore not terribly well-off. The workday began around 5 a.m. for their maid-of-all-work, and ended with an adults-only dinner late in the evening. Most of the day was devoted to planning, shopping for, preparing, serving, or washing up from meals. The incredible amount of work required to make this family fit into the expectations of a middle-class household is staggering.
Another interesting chapter focused on the shift (among the upper classes) from serving formal dinners in the French style to serving these dinners in the Russian style (basically a difference in servant deployment and table arrangement). Broomfield partially attributes this shift to changing attitudes toward the French in the post-Napoleonic era, but more important was a value shift in England at the time. See, the 18th century’s fancy meal, served French style, involved a more informal approach to serving, often with dishes of food placed on the table, and the meat carved by the host at the head. As dining Russian style came into favor, the upper classes in Victorian England began to favor more elaborate and formal dinners, with each course served individually by servants.
Other chapters in the book deal with that confusing meal known as tea and with English breakfasts. Did you know that a Victorian housewife’s ability to make the perfect slice of toast was a major factor in whether she was a successful housekeeper? And apparently toast was pretty complicated to make in the pre-toaster era.
Overall, a very good and informative book, especially if you like history, and especially revisionist-type histories, ones exploring domestic or secondary historical narratives. Recommended!