Not exactly a beacon of haute cuisine, Great Britain has nonetheless its food bible and it was Mrs. Isabella Beeton who provided it, in 1861. More than a cookbook as we conceive of it today, it’s a guide to perfect housewifery, a compendium of practical suggestions, from handling servants to legal advice, etiquette and, yes, cooking for the everyday English woman. All this information was researched and put together by a 25 year old, with no cooking experience whatsoever and whatever household experience she had accumulated as the eldest of ten children.
Shortly after marrying Mr. Beeton, a magazine publisher, Isabelle came to the conclusion, judging from the letters female readers sent to her husband’s magazines, that the average woman needed guidance when it came to all matters household related, and she set out to provide just that in one volume. She didn’t let her lack of cooking experience, a minor detail, get in the way, and, collecting recipes from readers and acquaintances or stealing them from older cookbooks, she tested each and everyone of them in her own kitchen, with the help of her maid and cook; she organized and researched the book and wrote most of it and it is to her we own the innovation of listing the ingredients at the very top, before the method. And, to this day, Mrs. Beeton is still a household name, even though I don’t imagine anyone in their right mind is using her book to actually prepare everyday meals.
Unless you work at Campari and Sofa. You might have noticed we are in the midst of a retro week, and, kicking ideas around, we wondered whether it would still be possible to cook a Mrs. Beeton meal. An edible one, that is.
The entire book is available on line, at mrsbeeton.com, and, having invited some unsuspecting guests for dinner, I poured over the hundreds of recipes to build a meal that would be palate pleasing. I decided on chicken for protein and settled on pan-fried chicken cutlets, supposed to be served on sliced bread, piled on a plate and smothered with gravy. Vegetables were easy – if I dismissed all the boiled to death veggies (a staple of the English diet), and all the ones drowned in cheese and butter, I was left with some interesting roasting options. Most of the puddings require suet, a rendered beef fat that can still be bought in England but is a bit trickier to acquire stateside; suet, as disgusting as it might sound, has the double task of providing fat and moisture, as it has a much higher melting point than any other fat, and it’s perfect for such desserts that are boiled or steamed for hours. My baked apple pudding would contain no suet but butter, although vegetable shortening is a better alternative. Some deciphering of ingredients and measurements was required, but that was half the fun. How did it all turn out? Stay tuned for the results.
In the meantime, we would like to invite you to peruse the book and, for the foodies out there, we are opening a competition: pick one of Mrs. Beeton’s recipes and reinvent it as a modern cook, while staying true to its essence. Make the dish, send us the retooled recipe (together with the title of the original) and one or two photos. We will pick the three most intriguing (or most successful entries) and we will post them, with a link to your blogs. The winning one will get its own blog feature, written by us (and if you do not have blog, we do have another prize for you). You can e-mail your efforts to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 7. Please put Mrs. Beeton in the subject line.
All entries must be received by June 7 – please do make sure to include a visual of the finished dish. Good luck!