We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
Owen Meredith: Earl of Lytton (1831-1891).
Isabella Beeton was the original domestic goddess. She introduced the aspiring Victorian middle classes to the ‘right’ way to manage a household, control servants and produce an elegant and fully costed dinner sufficient to impress the neighbours. All this despite dying at only twenty-eight years old.
Kathryn Hughes’s excellent biography ‘The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton’ explains how despite her early death, Isabella’s husband Samuel, a canny publisher, continued to produce ever more editions of ‘Mrs Beeton’ to serve the voracious and popular demand for her guidance which lasted well into the next century. In the 1890s my Grandmother was the cook for the Pickerings, a family of Hull trawlers owners who had made a fortune by going into steam power early. Her employer Rachael Pickering would have been the classic Mrs Beeton customer.
My own Mrs Beeton is an ancient edition of ‘Everyday Cookery’ first published in 1865, the year of her death. Its introduction is one of the last things she wrote:
‘We have been driven to feel that for all girls in every station of life, cookery should be a necessary part of education; and that to cook without knowing anything about the constituents or properties of the various kinds of food used is a great mistake.’
Substitute ‘everyone’ for girls and that’s a good principal for today’s ready meal world. Mind you, she does go on to say 'There is an innate love for housekeeping in most girls and it might so easily be cultivated.' Hmm...
Mrs B. has been much maligned poor woman, with her reputation for boiling vegetables until they are tasteless pulp and her countless variations on the steamed pudding, but there are good things in the books too. She is a stickler for using only seasonal food – mostly because of its cheapness. She is brilliantly varied, I think she’s good on fish and she reminds us not only of what we have gained by way of easy refrigeration, food processors and so on, but she reminds us of what we have lost as well. I have a weakness for moulds and shapes so some of the illustrations are right up my street.
Mrs Beeton was far from original. Her recipes are gleaned from Brillat-Savarin, Carème, and above all her British predecessor, Eliza Acton, who was the first cook to realise the potential market for instruction manuals amongst those new to the middle classes. What Mrs B does brilliantly though, is to make it all very accessible and attainable. For example, every month she provides her readers with a number of seasonal menus; and in order to help us keep up with the Jones’s she translates it into French for the Menu cards. Here’s one of the menus for March.
Leg of Lamb
That’s all one meal!
In 1865 Isabella died after the birth of her fourth child from that scourge of Victorian motherhood – puerperal fever, spread by the infected hands of doctors who should have known better. Samuel survived her until 1877 but his failing health meant by that time, the 'Mrs Beeton' brand had been sold to the publishers Ward Lock. Neither he nor Isabella could possibly have realised what they had started; Isabella Beeton to Nigella Lawson – the domestic goddess lives on.
I went to Stevenson’s fish shop in Newlyn yesterday and Mrs Beeton would be proud of me, there were fresh whiting for £1 each.
Mrs Beeton’s Fried Whiting
Egg and breadcrumbs, a little flour, hot lard or clarified dripping. Average cost 4d-6d each.
Take off the skins, clean and thoroughly wipe the fish free from moisture, as this is most essential in order that the egg and bread-crumbs may properly adhere. Fasten the tail in the mouth by means of a small skewer, brush the fish over with the egg, dredge with a little flour and cover with the breadcrumbs. Fry them in the hot lard of (sic) a nice colour and serve them on a napkin garnished with fried parsley. Send them to the table with a shrimp sauce or melted butter.
Time: about 6 minutes, Seasonable: all the year but best from October to March
I wasn’t sure about this, if I put the tails in the mouth first how would I fry the fish evenly, ditto how do I skin them but keep them whole?
So I put my trust in Mrs B and did exactly what she told me.
I immediately discovered that whiting have very sharp teeth, so the tails hold in the mouth very easily, and their skins are paper thin. I made a skin-deep incision round the tail and another behind the gills, then I cut off the fins with scissors. Getting my fingers under an edge of skin it came off quite easily - I used my kitchen scissors to help me. So far so good.
Then I dried the fish, brushed it with egg, floured and breadcrumbed it. I fried it flat for a few minutes to brown it and then put its tail in its mouth and finished it in a hot oven. It worked well, the only thing I did wrong was not to breadcrumb the head - so that it looked a bit bald and the photo tastefully omits to show its gnashing jaws.
'You shall have a fishy on a little dishy,
You shall have a fishy when the boat comes in.
Dance ti' th' daddy, my little laddie, dance ti' th' daddy, my little man.
Dance ti' th' daddy, sing ti' thy mommy, dance ti' th' daddy, when the boat comes in.'
Traditional Northumberland Folk song
PS. We're about to get a BBC documentary about Mrs Beeton fronted by Sophie Dahl so keep an eye out for it.