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Mrs. Beeton Saved My Life

A very modern woman's cookbook has taught and entertained generations.

January 19, 2000|HELEN STRINGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Common sense is not so common," Voltaire once wrote, and although the irascible Frenchman was writing more than 70 years before she was born, he would undoubtedly have appreciated Isabella Beeton as a very uncommon woman indeed.

I certainly did, stumbling across her one and only book not too long after my parents had run away from home.

I was 17 or so at the time, and they'd taken it on the lam to California. My sister and I, whose sole experience of America was Columbus, Ohio, with its blistering summers and freezing winters, assumed that all of America was the same and wanted no part of it.

We stayed behind in Liverpool, England, defiantly rebellious, and soon discovered, as many had before us, that defiant rebellion is all very well, but sooner or later you have to eat. And in common with many other defiantly rebellious souls, we couldn't boil an egg.

It was at this point that I came across a massive book at my grandmother's house that seemed to have all the answers. A heavy tome about 3 inches thick, "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" featured detailed instructions on such useful topics as how to poach an egg (with or without a poacher), how to make an omelet and how to tell whether fish is fresh. She explained how to set the table, how to clean stains and how to hire the servants.

OK, so that last one wasn't really useful to us, but even there her ideas would not be amiss in the modern corporate human resources setting.

Isabella Beeton, it turned out, was not just some 19th century Martha Stewart but a true innovator and an early example of a professional woman.

She was born in 1837, the eldest girl in a family of 21. Her stepfather (her widowed mother had remarried) was in charge of printing for the Derby racetrack at Epsom Downs, and little Isabella, along with the rest of the brood, had the run of the track during the off-season.

Such an upbringing taught her the importance of organization and careful accounting, skills that she took to London when she married Sam Beeton in 1856. He had made his mark as the publisher of the first British edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," shortly after which he started the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.

Mrs. Beeton joined that enterprise, first penning the advice column and then moving on to cookery and housework. Her columns were published in book form in 1861 as her "Book of Household Management."

Many of her innovations in the presentation of recipes remain standard practice today. She included preparation and cooking times and noted how many each recipe would feed and what each would cost. Most important, she began each recipe with a list of ingredients with precise measurements, stating in her introduction, " . . . [A]ll those indecisive terms expressed by a bit of this, some of that, a small piece of that and a handful of the other, shall never be made use of, but all quantities be precisely and explicitly stated."

She went on to explain exactly what each measurement was. For example, a tablespoon is "a measure of bulk equal to that which would be produced by half an ounce of water." A dessert spoon is half a tablespoon, a drop is 1/60th of a fluid dram (that is, 1/480 of a fluid ounce), etc.

To make things even easier, she numbered not only the recipes but every paragraph of text in the book, making cross-reference a breeze (someone should revive that one!).

Though Mrs. Beeton did not create the recipes in her book, she (along with her cook and kitchen maid) did test every single one, rejecting the elaborate concoctions favored by professional cooks like Charles Francatelli (chef to Queen Victoria) and selecting only those appropriate for middle-class homes. Her skills were those of an editor and of a teacher, lending firm but gentle guidance to the new housekeeper, a role more needed in the industrial mid-19th century than it had been in earlier centuries, when people were more likely to settle close to home. This book was designed for the woman who was separated from the advice of family, whether by the distance to the next village or of an ocean.

Isabella Beeton died in 1865 at the age of 28 of puerperal fever after giving birth to her fourth child, an ironic end for a woman so dedicated to cleanliness (puerperal fever was caused by the unwashed hands of doctors). Her heartbroken husband spent the rest of his life reprinting and updating his wife's great work, which remained in print for more than 50 years.

That she managed to achieve so much (she also started another magazine, the Queen, which is still in print as Harper's & Queen), with such common sense and evident good humor at such an early age, impresses me just as much now as when I first encountered her book.

Much of the enjoyment in reading Mrs. Beeton, however, comes from the non-cooking information. Each section of the book was prefaced with a few pages of general instruction, and most of the recipes had interesting notes appended in smaller type.

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