So, there is this book called Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and I am told, fifty years ago, every woman in Great Britain had a copy in her kitchen. Being embarrassingly not British, I had heard of it but never knew much about the book or it’s author. My loss. A couple years ago I came across a copy in a used bookstore and picked it up for fun, not knowing that it was widely credited as “the first modern cookbook”(earlier cookbooks did not bother with things like measurements and oven temperatures and such) or that it was such a heavy hitter in the world of kitchen arts. I sorta always credited Julia Child and Martha Stewart as the grand dames of cookbooks, but know I know the truth. Mrs. Beeton had them beat 100 years and counting. All hail Mrs. B!
Interestingly, apparently the book was originally written to help women at a time when socio-economic structures were murky, and the industrial revolution brought about a good deal of new wealth. Many women found themselves in positions of running a household, staff included, but had no guidance or personal experience to help them chart the course. The book covers everything from chicken soup to childcare to dish washing to elaborately displays of fruit, puss-colored aspic, and spiced rabbit meat. Yummmm-oh.
Even in all it’s Victorian leadenness, it’s actually a very fun read. I own quite a few of these household tips type of books, and this might be my favorite. You get the impression that the author takes herself very seriously indeed. I had the impression that Mrs. Beeton was some old cougar, weather-beaten by time and childrearing…but no, she was a lovely young woman. An innovative survivor type who grew up on a racetrack, of all places. Sadly she died of a fever at the age of 28, barely a week after the birth of her fourth baby.
Sophie Dahl, modern-day glamor giraffe, model., actress, (and granddaughter to Rold Dahl) (can you tell I’m jealous?), did a wonderful program on Mrs. Beeton a few years ago for the BBC. This may be old to some of you but it’s newish to me, and I’m absolutely enthralled. This woman!
Just for fun, let’s look at Mrs. B’s recipe for, wait for it…PARROT PIE.
12 Parakeets *
6 Thin slices of lean beef, 4
4 Rashers of bacon, 3
3 Hard-boiled eggs
1/2 ts Finely chopped parsley
1/4 ts Dried parsley
Finely grated lemon peel
Salt & pepper
* Parakeets are a small, long-tailed tropical parrot.
Method: Prepare the birds, and truss them like a quail or any other small bird. Line a pie-dish with the beef, over it place 6 of the paraquets, intersperse slices of egg, parsley and lemon-rind, dredge lightly with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Cover with the bacon cut into strips, lay the rest of the birds on the top, intersperse slices of egg, season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with parsley and lemon-rind as before; three-quarter fill the dish with cold water, cover with puff-paste, and bake in a quick oven.
Time: About 2-1/2 hours. SUFFICIENT for about 12 persons.
Hear that folks? Lock up your ‘keets — I’m making a pie!