Saturday, August 26, 2006

The British Housewife - Book Review

The British Housewife Cookery-books, Cooking and Society in 18th-century Britain by Gilly Lehmann


One of my tasks I do is collect recipes. I cut them out of the newspaper, magazines, etc. and organize them in a way they can be used.

This is an old practice and Gilly Lehmann traces the practice of keeping “receipt” books to the publication of full-blown cookbooks in the 18th century in The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain.

Lehmann shows how the initial cookbooks of the 17th century were merely collections of recipes of ladies. These manuscripts were published in pretty much the form they were submitted in. The true cookbook emerged with the growing popularity of court cooking. The upper-class wanted to emulate the table of royalty and cookbooks were published accordingly.

Throughout the 18th century, the cookbook changes along with society. The first books were created with the mistress of the house in mind. She would instruct her cooks on how to prepare the recipes. The dishes were heavily influenced by the French. Also, the books contained information on creating medicines and other household tips. The books evolved and soon stressed economics and pressed the simplicity of the English dishes. As the century progressed and literacy rates increased, the books were written for the servant class so they could improve their skills. Ladies, even middle class ones, had other, more important things to do than bother with the kitchen and menu planning. Cookery books became more and more geared towards professional women-women who cooked for a living. There would still be a few sections geared towards the mistress of the house, bills of fare to help a young mistress plan a party and such.

The British Housewife follows how cooking styles changed along with society. The books were primarily written by women for women. They ran the gamut of price. There were books written by men, but they were geared towards male cooks. The books followed the trends of food fashions. The French were considered the height of fashion in the beginning of the century but they were later scoffed at. What was served at the table said much about the person, beyond their wealth. French foods came to be equated with the very tops of society, running along political lines. Whigs ate French food. Tories ate the simple, solid English roasts and puddings. Although many of the books included French recipes, the authors themselves would denigrate the French style.

Table manners and presentation changed throughout the century as well and Lehmann includes an analysis in her book. From the ultra-formal style of the Restoration towards the simpler bourgeois manners at the end of the century, the food and manners were interconnected. Lehmann does a great job of following these trends, backing up her findings with primary sources.

Food has always defined society. Lehmann shows exactly how the 18th century ushered in the modern style of cooking. This book is wonderful for anyone interested in the 18th century. What was eaten and how it was presented is fascinating. How the elements of the table defined a person’s status and political leanings is interesting. Although her focus is more from a food historian’s interest, anyone with familiarity of the period will gain something.

This is definitely a scholarly book, not light reading. I would not recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a basic knowledge of the period, or actually, I don’t think a reader can appreciate it fully unless they have some background in the 18th century. The book isn’t difficult to read, but it was written with scholars in mind.

3 Comments:

Blogger Tess said...

Oooh - I noticed the book on your blog. Thanks for the review. One to look for, I think :-) It sounds fantastic.

2:19 PM  
Blogger lady macleod said...

very informative review.

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