The Truth About Mrs Beeton

We’re back! Yes, following a fortnight festive adventure in rural North Devon we are back in the city and ready to take on the new year. We’ve been busy with lots of foodie escapades including a trip to the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster, lunch at Saltaire’s Chez Shamwari, testing recipes for our Mexico feast next week and losing our mail order rose veal! We’ll be reporting back on all of this in the coming weeks so do keep an eye out.

In the meantime I thought I’d put together a little piece on Mrs Beeton. As you will know we are using Beeton’s popular classic ‘Book of Household Management’ as the inspiration for our March 10th Supperclub and so I’ve been keen to find out as much as I can about her as there are so many myths surrounding her life. Foodie camps do tend to be split on how they feel about her and I wanted to know why.

The famous portrait of Mrs Beeton

1. Firstly, Isabella Beeton died at the young age of 28. This shocked me as the cultural icon that is often depicted of Mrs Beeton is that of a wizened old woman. One assumes that she was an old matron with a lifetime’s experience of offering advice about cooking and home life, when in fact she was only 21 when she started writing Household Management!. Much of this was to do with the publishers who owned the rights to her name after her death in 1865. They discovered that Mrs Beeton’s name was a bit of a cash cow and so it continued to be used on new publications well into the next century, despite her not having anything to do with authoring the texts. So if you have a book on Mrs Beeton’s Microwave tips then it won’t be authentic!

2. Next up is that Mrs Beeton was an accidental journalist and had no prior experience as a cook or a house wife. She married publisher Samuel Beeton who produced a range of popular books and magazines. Her pragmatic approach to life and good head for business meant that Samuel quickly used her in his company. This was very rare for a woman in the early Victorian era. Isabella would commute into London with her husband on a daily basis and would often receive a negative reaction from fellow (male)commuters. She started writing lifestyle and fashion columns in one of Samuel’s magazines. It is alleged that her plain English and no-nonsense approach to explaining things led to her taking on the challenge of editing the Book of Household Management, which was a compendium on how to run a home – no mean feat for someone who had only been running a home for six months and which was a semi in Pinner!

3. A claim of the Book of Household Management is that every single recipe was tested by Isabella herself. This is highly dubious as with about 2000 recipes it seems highly unlikely that Beeton would have had time to individually test each one in the time that Household Management was written. Originally produced in a number of instalments over a four-year period, Isabella would have been too busy cooking each and every recipe instead of writing about them!

4. As already mentioned, Mrs Beeton was no cook herself and so took the inspiration for her recipes from of a number of existing sources that included Eliza Acton and George IV’s chef Antonin Careme. Whilst in some cases Beeton acknowledges where she has lifted a recipe, on the whole she did not and in some cases she quotes a text in full and claims it as her own! Whilst her shameless plagarising is undeniable, her work should still be praised for bringing together a comprehensive encyclopedia on how anything and everything should be prepared and cooked. Whilst the foodie creativity was not her own, never before was all of the instruction in one place together. Thanks to the success of the book we are now lucky to have an excellent record of Victorian life 150 years later, and her influence on all of us home cooks is undeniable.

5. It is likely that Mrs Beeton died of complications brought on by syphilis, which she will have contracted from her riddled husband on her honeymoon. Sam was a well-known user of prostitutes. In the Victorian period any sexual transmitted infections were very taboo and so were buried under the carpet and explained away with other conditions. Isabella had many of the symptoms, including a number of miscarriages and giving birth to very sickly children who died young.

6. Mrs Beeton’s recipes are often criticised for being unhealthy as she is famous for obliterating vegetables. Her instruction for carrots is for two hours of boiling and parsnips for 90 minutes! This would remove any nutritional value from them. She also does not look favourably on a vegetarian diet. The original Household Management  included 300 pages on meat but a mere 50 pages on veg! Despite this, if one was to follow her family menu suggestions then one would not consume that many more calories than today’s diet. This is ultimately healthier as Beeton’s diet had more protein than our carb laden diets. Plus the Victorian world was not full of the modern conveniences we are all used to now, and so a few more calories would have been welcomed!

Anyway, hopefully that’s given you a bit of an insight into a very intriguing and influential book! If you want to find out more than I do recommend that you check out Kathryn Hughes’ biography of Mrs Beeton, it kept me entertained over the Christmas break! Susie and I have since trawled household management and compared it with Gerard Baker’s recent update on it, to select an authentic menu for our March supperclub guests. We’re keeping it a surprise for now but you can be rest assured that it will feature fine local produce, cooked simply and well. Think succulent roast beef and fresh creamy fish! We still have four spaces left actually, so if you’d like to snaffle them up before someone else does then book now via this link!

In other news the menu for our Mexican supperclub next weekend is ready and is about to go out to our guests. We’ll post it on the site tomorrow. We tested some of the recipes over the new year break and were very pleased with the results!

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