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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

Some of them were practical, such as details on growing certain plants or where particular meats were raised. But many were just fascinating diversions, connected to the recipe by the most slender of threads--water in ancient Rome, the discovery of roast pork (supposedly by an ancient Croatian villager who accidentally set his house on fire), the geology of the hills of southeast England and the disposition (bad temper) of the turkey, to name but a few.

Drawn in by such entertaining asides, I joined the vast ranks of women who, since 1861, have found themselves indebted to this extraordinary woman. I learned how to boil that egg, make that omelet and roast a chicken.

But it wasn't until I branched out and decided to try something else that I discovered the true treasures in the book.

It was the oxtail soup that did it. Now, I'd always loved oxtail soup, but I'd had only the canned variety. The recipe sounded straightforward, it sounded easy, and it sounded as if it made enough to feed (a) an army or (b) me and my sister for a week and a half.

It didn't last a week and half. Flavored with Port, it is deep and comforting in a way only winter soups can be. It smells of home and roaring fires and holidays. It is fabulous.

I tried the poulet a la Marengo, one of the few recipes in the book to include garlic. Moving on to the vegetable dishes, I dared Fried Cucumbers (cucumber fritters that Mrs. Beeton suggested serving with steak), baked mushrooms and asparagus peas (asparagus cut into pea-sized bits and cooked in a cream sauce). I moved on to desserts, trying Manchester Pudding and her sumptuous chocolate cream, among others.

At the back of the book, following the recipes and executive advice, were long menus for each month. From extravagant dinners for 18, through smaller and smaller numbers until she arrived at "Plain Family Dinners."

The dinners for 18 included suggested table layouts for each successive course, each one of which looks to modern eyes like enough food for a week. The family dinners are far more conservative and reflect middle-class eating habits not so different from our own.

For example, in January she suggests roast rolled ribs of beef with greens, potatoes and horseradish, followed by bread and butter pudding and cheesecakes. Or for a Sunday in August, vegetable marrow (zucchini) soup, roast quarter of lamb with mint sauce, French beans and potatoes, followed by raspberry and currant tart and custard pudding. None of it was exactly low in fat, but it probably kept them warm in those chilly Victorian houses.

It isn't just the similarities to today's food or the extreme differences that make Mrs. Beeton's book interesting today. In many ways it is the smaller changes in eating habits and tastes.

Today we like garlic with practically everything and expect all sorts of dishes to bristle with peppers. But in the mid-19th century, garlic was regarded with grave suspicion. Meanwhile, the expanding British Empire had brought in new spices and created a fad for curry powder. When today we would use cloves, Mrs. Beeton favored nutmeg and mace, which show up in recipe after recipe.

In a throwback to the Middle Ages, ground almonds still make an occasional appearance as a thickening agent. But above all, modern readers cannot help but be impressed by the copious amounts of butter and cream.

As we browse through the book, with its wobbly typeface and detailed engravings, it seems so long ago, and it's easy to laugh at the many unlikely stories given for how recipes originated or the hopelessly garbled history.

But it's important to remember that to Mrs. Beeton and her contemporaries, their world was as modern and changeable as our own. It may have been the age of the crinoline and the open fire, but it was also the time in which the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid and the age of the bicycle, the sewing machine and the train. Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" had been published two years before "Household Management," and work had already begun on the first London subway route, which opened in 1864.

The world in which Mrs. Beeton lived was one of rapid change, of mobility and invention. People were exploring tastes and experiences from all over the world, and the household was a part of that journey.

For the first time in history, people weren't destined to live all their lives in one socioeconomic stratum. Social mobility was pursued with gusto on both sides of the Atlantic, and people who had grown up with nothing were frequently faced with the daunting dilemmas of hiring servants, running a growing household and hosting elegant dinners.

It was for these people and in this modern world that Mrs. Beeton lived and wrote, not as some fading violet of romance but as one of the first truly modern women.

Oxtail Soup

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 4 hours

2 oxtails (about 6 pounds)

2 tablespoons butter

2 carrots, sliced

2 turnips, sliced

3 onions, sliced

1 leek, sliced

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