The British Housewife Cooker-books, Cooking and Society in 18th-century Britain

The British Housewife Cooker-books, Cooking and Society in 18th-century Britain

ISBN-10 1-903018-04-8 ISBN-13 978-1-903018-04-0 Published Dec 2002 494 pages; 175×250 mm; hardback Price £40

Gilly Lehmann

The British Housewife

Cooker-books, Cooking and Society in 18th-century Britain

 

Dr Lehmann's original thesis, submitted to the University of Burgundy in Dijon, has always had mythic status: the French taking English cookery seriously? So much material about 18th-century cookery books locked away in a doctoral vault, hidden from our hungry eyes? This is not the whole text, but is the substance; and I hope it will go some way towards driving cookery and its literature into the heart of English academic discourse. Now that would be a real achievement. The book is at once a study of the development of cookery itself in the 17th and 18th centuries, a discussion of the relationship between the authors of cookery books and their readers, a portrait of the British at table during the 18th century – manners, customs, mealtimes and intentions, and an annotated bibliography of the literature of cookery. This last takes the form of complete transcriptions (and some facsimiles) of all the title pages of works referred to by Dr Lehmann. As the title page is often the only point at which something that might be described as 'philosophy' or theory enters into the text of a household manual, it will be admitted that such a gathering will have great utility. This is a biggy.

Notes from the dust jacket

This is the first full-scale study of the world of eighteenth-century British cookery books, their authors, their readers and their recipes. For many decades, we have treated them as collectables – often fetching thousands at auction and in rare-book catalogues – or as quaint survivors, while ignoring their true history or what they have to tell us about the Georgians at table. The publication of cookery books was pursued more vigorously in Britain than in any other west European country: it was also the genre that attracted more women writers to its ranks – indeed, perhaps the very first woman to earn her living from her writing in modern Britain was Hannah Woolley, author of The Cook’s Guide and other works. Reason enough to look more closely at the form. This book pursues the authors: their identity, their intentions, their biographies; and it weighs up their audience. How far did the one determine the other? How far did the character of the authors and their output direct the course of British cookery during the eighteenth century?

While books advised and encouraged their readers to cook, create and compound, the experience at table may have been very different. The British Housewife tests the fantasy against the reality perceived in contemporary diaries. correspondence and other sources. Meal-times, table manners and the actual procedures of dining are laid out for the modern reader in much greater detail than hitherto. And the curious may discover how eighteenth-century noblemen fought for the favours of the best French chefs, how cookery book writers traded insults in the public print, or how celebrity chefs’ of the day wrote not a word of the books that were put out under their name. La plus ça change…

There is an extensive bibliography together with a long appendix giving the full wording of the title pages of many of the cookery books under discussion, making this an indispensable handbook as well as a major contribution to understanding a subject we know too little about. There are several illustrations of table layouts, title pages and frontispieces from the original books.

A PDF of the opening pages of Gilly Lehmann’s The British Housewife, including the contents, introduction and the beginning pages of the first section

Review of The British Housewife by Sandra Sherman in Gastronomica (04/04)

Review of Gilly Lehmann’s book by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian (02/08/03)

A review from the Austenonly website (12/09)

Review from the webzine British Food in America


Review of The British Housewife by Sandra Sherman in Gastronomica (Apr 2004)

The British Housewife is the first attempt to study systematically the explosion in culinary literature and consequent adaptation in taste and manners that characterized eighteenth century Britain. It makes a few key points, all of which resonate with the well-worn idea that middle-class values gradually inflected virtually all social phenomena. These points emphasize: 1) the reinterpretation of French haute cuisine for a bourgeois readership concerned with elegance but skittish of extravagance; 2) the market penetration of this renovated, anglicized culinary discourse, owing to progressive disengagement of middle-class women from culinary duties, in emulation of ladies who passed such duties on to servants; 3) the rise of a servant/reader and a female author who, unlike professionally trained male authors, understood that culinary texts could not assume a reader who knew how to cook; 4) a decline in formality at table, as middle-class ease becomes more important than stiff, upper-class, French-inspired protocol; and 5) a widening disjunction between culinary texts and actual meals, always less elegant and elaborate than aspirational culinary discourse leads modern readers to believe. The British Housewife expounds these ideas in a redundant, often numbing style, offering bourgeoisification itself as a pivotal phenomenon, and circling around questions one is dying to ask: How did cookbooks contribute to the desire for exotic ingredients, hence to international rivalries, colonialism, and globalization of trade? How did authors compete with the discourse of domestic manuscripts, which assured readers of a local authority for virtually every recipe? How did culinary discourse adapt to increasing urbanization, which engendered smaller households and fewer people at home to offer instruction? What were reader expectations, and how were readers induced to think that cooking could be learned without supervision? Cookbooks from this period are fascinating because they are ideologically potent, raucously competitive, and yet psychologically competent instruments of pedagogy – characteristics that do not seem to capture Gilly Lehmann's imagination.

The British Housewife is right to point out the increasing separation of savory and sweet, and the decline of the sweet course in middle-class cuisine during the first half of the century. Yet there were reasons for these developments apart from changing tastes, economics being primary. One looks in vain for a discussion of the price of sugar, which until mid century was a considerable luxury. An economic vacuum permeates Lehmann’s discussion, leaving one to conclude (falsely) that taste was always the crucial desideratum in eighteenth-century cuisine. The cost of food and availability of transport were constant factors affecting alimentary practice. Even more jarring is Lehmann’s dismissal of domestic manuscript culture, which she claims had waned by the Restoration. Yet as Janet Theophano has shown in Eat My Words, this culture was alive and well into the nineteenth century (a trip to the Wellcome Institute or the Winterthur Library bears this out). The importance of such manuscripts is that they present a foil to printed texts, forcing on such texts a new marketplace rhetoric bent on inspiring readers to try new, ostensibly standard recipes in place of local standbys. Lehmann’s insistence that culinary texts were often derivative and out of date is too simplistic, given the immense vigor of the competition. Cookbooks in this period perfected the idea that culinary knowledge could be acquired by following expert advice, yet one looks in vain in The British Housewife for a discussion of pedagogical psychology based on the projection of expertise and the dispersal of notions that cookery requires more than actual experience. The most potentially interesting part of The British Housewife is its examination of the divergence between culinary texts and actual meals, raising questions of the function of these texts. Lehmann quotes recorded menus, demonstrating that they were rarely up to the standards of culinary authors. But then why did people read cookbooks? The question is tantalizing, but Lehmann offers no provocative answer. The most comprehensive part of The British Housewife is its examination of mealtimes, especially that of dinner and “nuncheon.” Lehmann documents the gradual postponement of the dinner hour and the necessity therefore of a midday snack. Late meals were a sign of status, and lesser visitors could be kept waiting past their normal mealtime so as to reinforce the host’s superiority. Sophisticated visitors to the traditional gentry derided the early dinners served on country estates. There is much information in The British Housewife, but it is old history. Lehmann’s subject still awaits a more engaging, theoretically aware treatment.


Review of Gilly Lehmann’s book by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian ( 2 Aug 2003)

Fine dining was a competitive sport in Georgian England, at least among those who could afford it. The whigs – aristocratic, vaguely internationalist -were particularly keen on buying up the best French chefs: when the Duke of Newcastle lost Pierre Clouet in the late 1740s he was positively lovelorn, writing melancholy letters about the thick and sticky sauces that the new man insisted on sending to table.

Running alongside this discourse of the exquisite was another more homely strand of cooking and eating. As the 18th century progressed, bourgeois tastes, buoyed by an influx of cash and confidence, began to assert themselves not only as delicious but wholesome too. Since Britain was at war with France for years at a time, there was something unpatriotic about smacking your lips over all those rich and complex flavours, especially since they were probably designed to disguise meat that was less than fresh. Instead, it made sense to look back to the 17th century - or at least a mythic version of it – in which English gentlewomen led the way in preparing food that was simple, truthful and close to home (no manor house was complete without a still room from which issued a stream of jellies and preserves, the products of a well-stocked kitchen garden).

Leading this revival of British cookery in the 18th century was a clutch of women who knew a good market when they saw it. For centuries mothers and daughters had swapped ‘receipts’ in a haphazard way: now it made sense to fix that wisdom in print, and charge for access to it. The authors of these new cookbooks with brisk titles such as The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy were either female chefs who had worked in the kitchens of the gentry, or else harried housewives with a keen sense of what was really needed. These women wrote for money, pilfering recipes from earlier authorities and bringing out endless new editions if it looked as though the public would pay. Gilly Lehmann is too refined to push the point, but the implication is clear: here is the first sighting of that modem phenomenon, the cookery writer whose books have become a brand.

The picture is, of course, infinitely smudgier than this summary suggests. And it is one of the great strengths of Lehmann’s magnificent scholarship that she manages to hold in her head – and her text – an almost infinite number of contradictions and qualifications to her central arguments. In particular, she worries away like a terrier at the fundamental (though until recently over-looked) problem of the gap between prescription and practice. The 18th century was no stranger to gastro porn: the mere fact that someone owned a book which suggested dishing up eight courses when the neighbours came round didn’t mean they actually did it.

To find out how ordinary people really ate, Lehmann conducts a fingertip search of contemporary diaries and memoirs, noting down every mention of a mealtime, menu or standing snack. In the process she discovers a hundred little human dramas, fraught with greed and envy – Jane Austen, for instance, writes with contrived lightness to her sister Cassandra, joking about the provincial earliness of the dinner hour at Steventon. James Boswell records how surprised he is to call on a female friend in mid-afternoon and find her tucking into pigeon pie, beef and madeira (naturally, he joins in). Parson James Woodforde, meanwhile, gets his niece Nancy to make an extra effort with the cakes and custards on those headline occasions when the local squire is coming to dine.

As Britain’s commercial empire expanded in the second half of the 18th century, new kinds of dishes appeared. Turtle was particularly popular because it screamed luxury, yet was defiantly bourgeois you’d be unlikely to find one ambling round someone’s country park). Preparing the thing took days, and taxed the ingenuity of the finest chef (the fins alone had their own recipe). Perhaps for that reason, those cookery writers who continued to point their prose towards the humbler middle classes suggested substituting a calf’s head.

It is this multi-layered nature of food fashion that Lehmann understands so well. As she rightly says near the beginning of her book, people go on eating dishes long after they have fallen off the smart radar (visiting your parents or grandparents this weekend, what are the chances of being presented with an avocado stuffed with prawns?).

In the 18th century, middle-class Britons were quite capable of consuming a family dinner, a scratch snack and a tavern meal within the space of 48 hours. Each event came trailing its own dense cultural atmosphere, a mix of commercial pressure, social aspiration and personal preference. Lehmann’s great skill is to give full weight to the uniqueness of each meal, and yet still be able to present an overall picture of 18th-century eating that is neither bitty nor over-simplified. The result is a model of how food history, social history – all kinds of history – should be done.


A review from the Austenonly website (Dec 2009)

This book has been in print for some time (it was first published in 2003) but I thought I would recommend it to you here, now I have the opportunity so to do, and because I find it is one of the best books written on food in the long eighteenth century.

It is published by Prospect Books and Tom Jaine who runs the company should be knighted for services to food history. His catalogue of wonderful books make for rewarding and fine reading: most of them in his present an past catalogue are to be found on my book shelves, and I can highly recommend them to anyone keen to learn about the practical details of cookery performed in a long gone era.

Gilly Lehamn’s book is an extract from her doctoral dissertation. Despite its academic nature it is a very readable book, and is not dry as dust. Like most of my favourite historians she refers to Jane Austen as a source (though not as frequently as Amanda Vickery!) and that can’t be a bad thing. I do tend to favour a writers who appreciate Jane Austen’s accuracy I recording life in the late 18th can early 19th century.

This book will teach you all you really need to know about the food styles of the 18th century (the rage for French food versus plain English fare),how it was eaten and how recipes etc were disseminated throughout the 18th century.

Though she concentrates on the cookery books of the era, she also give us fabulous information (which is hard to find in books or on the net) on the authors of these books and their readership, detailing the types of person – from grand mistress to servants – who was intended to be the reader of the books.

She takes pains to tell us about the Tavern Cooks, like John Farley, Collingwood and Wollams celebrity chefs whose popular books were “ghost written” by a hack journalist: nothing really changes does it?

This book also provides, in one volume, delicious detail about the way meals were eaten,manners, customs, mealtimes, the ever changing time for diner throughout the century and what that said about your status, etc., etc. This helps explain Jane Austens despairing remark when writing to her sister Cassandra who was staying with Edward Knight at Godmersham in Kent, who was of course as Ms Lehman notes ‘the rich member of the family’: ‘We dine now at half after three & have done diner I suppose before you begin–We drink tea at half after six.–I am afraid you will despise us.’

When Tom Jaine announced the publication of this book, he predicted that ‘This is a biggy’. I can only agree…


Review from the webzine British Food in America

The second book under consideration is by the author of the passages quoted in the introduction to this review. She is Gillian Lehmann and a formidable scholar based on the evidence of The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Once again, the title is misleading because like Panayi, Lehmann delivers more than she promises. She starts by tracing the impact of printed cookbooks on Tudor cooking (French influence as early as the 1500s was an interesting surprise), the consequent rise of court cookery and the beginning of what amounts to modernization toward the end of the sixteenth century (there is a helpful discussion of the different audiences of male and female authors even this early, and of Robert May and Gervase Markham) before addressing the 1700s in detail.

Lehmann provides so much interesting detail, and writes with such clear precision, that it is possible to pluck random passages from the text and enjoy them without reading the whole, if time is short--but find time to read this book from start to finish. It is more interesting to follow her patterns of thought as she explains the upshot of her thorough research. Her conclusions are convincing and provoke a number of thoughts on Georgian society, and it is no mean feat to create a mirror of the larger culture through a study of its food.

Thus, the manner of dining conferred social station, but the gentry and “middling classes in the expanding cities” betray “no sense of any desire to emulate aristocratic habits.” (Lehmann 374-75, 376) In this their foodways mirrored their growing political and cultural influence, and confidence, and distinguished them from their continental counterparts on all counts.

If Lehmann’s insights are more deft than earthshattering--after all, we have the images of Hogarth, Gillray and lesser lights to reinforce many of them--that in no way diminishes her accomplishment. The implications of what Lehmann has found reinforce the conclusion of Tim Blanning and others that Britain was indeed a place apart, blessed with a relatively broad, porous and fluid political nation (at least by the standards of the eighteenth century) that shared a greater sense of common cause than its European counterparts. The taxpayers who taxed themselves through Parliament, to borrow one of Blanning’s images, all ate much the same food, and they ate it with relish.

England in particular differed in other ways too; professional cooking was a male monopoly elsewhere but foreigners (in this context including Scots) remarked repeatedly at the number of women employed as cooks in the houses of the gentry and ‘middling sort.’

The influence of women, as authors as well as cooks, eventually would cut both ways. Lehmann notes that books by female authors tended to display a more distinctly English character than books by men, in large measure because their relatively less complex recipes were aimed at a broader, less wealthy (and more female) audience. Examination of the books themselves bears her out. (Lehmann 162-63 and elsewhere) The employment of women also guarded the flame of British cuisine generally; nobody imported female chefs from France.

Thus, if gender set many English cooks apart, so did the food that English cooks produced. Alan Davidson and others have maintained that French and English technique are not fundamentally dissimilar historically, but Lehmann demonstrates that especially as the seventeenth century progressed, English cookbooks and the foodways they expressed diverged from French patterns in style as well as content. At the beginning of the century, the complicated court style of cooking, heavily influenced by French cooks and books, held sway; by the end of the century it had almost disappeared, and for reasons with implications broader than foodways. Cookbooks reached a wider audience than elsewhere, and while, for example, the relatively small number of French publications addressed experienced professionals, the bigger English printing runs and wider range of titles also reached farther down the social and skilled scale.

In discussing one of the recipes that The London Art of Cookery appropriated from Mrs. Raffald, Lehmann explains that: ‘The fairly simple dish and its short cooking time are typical, yet its detailed instructions would be deemed superfluous in a French book. The cook is told to use a wooden spoon, and given the reason for the brief cooking, without boiling, once the sauce is made. This is written for the uninitiated.’ (Lehmann 255)

Unfortunately, the prevalence in the kitchen of hired women also carried a virus that threatened to ruin British food as the eighteenth century came to a close. Lehmann maintains that:  ‘….The most important factor in the decline of English cookery, which is only just starting, is the gap between the kitchen and the table, between the people who produced the dishes and the people who consumed them. New models of femininity and gentility conspired to keep the mistress of the household out of the kitchen, and increasing numbers of ladies neglected domestic management for more decorous accomplishments.’ (Lehmann 279)

Did things really get that bad this early? Apparently they did: “It is thus hardly surprising to find so much negative comment on English food from foreign travellers…. ” (Lehmann 279) Other factors also must have been in play, but the transformation of British society from the relatively fluid vertical hierarchies of the ‘long eighteenth century (1688-1815)’ to the relatively ossified and horizontal Victorian class structure itself did transform the quality of British food, and not for the better.

Lehmann is particularly refreshing when she examines subjects, like The London Art of Cookery, that have become distorted by a historiographical game of telephone tag in which received wisdom is reiterated and becomes inadvertently mutated by authors who have not independently examined the underlying facts. Numerous writers have described the food and posited the culture of eighteenth century taverns by reference to ‘Farley’s’ London Art and a clutch of other ‘tavern’ cookbooks. These taverns were internationally renowned for their food, and historians have remarked repeatedly on the originality of the books. In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David even fell into the trap by commending ‘Farley’s’ clarity of voice and style. As our use of single quotations around his name infers, however, something is amiss. It turns out that: ‘…. These books did not in fact reveal the secrets of what was eaten in London taverns. Though signed by John Farley, Francis Collingwood and John Wollams, and T. Williams and his friends, they were simply compilations by a hack writer…. These productions derive very largely from Glasse and Raffald, to the extent of offering virtually identical recipes. The tavern cooks’ names and roll-call of places where they worked were simply devices to appeal to buyers. These were expected to be women servants.’ (Lehmann 148)

The British Housewife includes an appendix of “Some cookery books in detail” that itself is worth the (admittedly expensive) price of the book. The descriptions are detailed and informative but not stuffy (one author is a “bibliographer’s nightmare” but Lehmann untangles the various pseudonyms, titles and editions) and the range of titles is impressive. The book is published by Prospect, so the edition is beautiful, even if the index is surprisingly sparse. Lehmann herself is all the more intimidating for having translated the book into sparkling English from the French of her original.

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