Bread soup, fried ox feet and boiled cabbage

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management edited by Nicola Humble (Oxford World's Classics, £7.99)
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The Independent Culture

First published in 1861, Beeton is the grand dowager of cook-books. The name carries such authority that it is still borne by such unexpected titles as Mrs Beeton's Caribbean Cooking and Microwaving with Mrs Beeton. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that Household Management was the work of a journalist in her early twenties. Indeed, Isabella Beeton was only 28 when she died following the birth of her fourth child.

Though her famous opening is heavy with gravitas - "As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of the house" - her views on fashion are those of a spirited young woman. Suitably updated, they could appear in this month's Vogue: "Whatever the prevailing mode in attire, let it intrinsically be ever so absurd, it will never look so ridiculous as another, however convenient, comfortable or even becoming."

Aiming at the burgeoning middle classes, Beeton is particularly concerned with correct relations with servants. A strong personal animus is detectable in her views on certain wet-nurses who, "though morally certain of the effect it will have on the child, will, on the first opportunity, feed with much avidity on fried meats, cabbage, cucumbers, pickles, or other rude and injurious aliments". Other topics included child-care, etiquette, legal matters and family medicine. (When bleeding in cases of apoplexy, remember that "the vein must be cut lengthways and not across.")

But the vast bulk of the book - 935 pages of the 1,112 in the original - concerns food. Nicola Humble, editor of this abridged edition, suggests that a major aim of Household Management was to reverse the trend of husbands eating their evening meals in chop-houses. In this respect, Isabella bears a major responsibility for the Victorian "cult of domesticity". It is doubtful if she would approve of the modern trend of dispensing with family meals. Even breakfast, she insists, is an occasion "at which all the family should punctually be present".

Unlike her rival Eliza Acton, Beeton was no great shakes as a cook. Humble says that she contributed "only a handful" of recipes. Most were sent by readers of the English Woman's Domestic Magazine, published by Sam Beeton. With the assistance of her cook and kitchenmaid, Mrs B tested the lot. Hence her rueful admission that "if I had known, beforehand, that this book would cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it".

It is worth sparing a thought for Sam - not only was he deprived of the company of chop-house cronies, but back home in Pinner he was obliged to chomp his way through such treats as Bread Soup (Economical), Fried Ox-Feet and Sweet Macaroni Pudding.

There are a few exceptions to this tried-and-tested policy. Though the recipe for turtle soup starts with the breezy injunction to "cut off the head of the turtle on the previous day", Humble notes that "it is extremely unlikely that Beeton had ever seen, let alone dispatched, a huge, live turtle". The inclusion of this prodigious dish appears to be aspirational in purpose.

Though some instructions are dismaying - none more so than the "half to three-quarters of an hour" recommended for boiling cabbage - Beeton's approach was often ahead of her time. She insisted on knowing the scientific principles underlying cooking, and her views on the battery farms that were already churning out tasteless fowl in the mid-19th century make you want to cheer: "Tender, delicate and nutritious flesh is the aim; and these qualities, I can affirm without fear of contradiction, were never attained by a dungeon-fatted chicken."

Nicola Humble's editing is of a truly Beetonesque thoroughness. The sole failing of this edition is that, for reasons of economy, it includes only one-fifth of the original recipes. For example, it gives only two rice pudding recipes, compared to 12 in the original. Without seeing the full text (complete with charming coloured plates), it is hard to appreciate the extent of Mrs Beeton's labours.

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