Through the Isinglass, the 150 Year Old British Cookbook
Isabella Beeton may have died in 1865, but through numerous posthumous editions of her huge, and hugely popular “Book of Household Managment”, she gained a fame that continues to this day. What set her book apart was its clarity and scope. Containing 1,700 recipes, including 76 soups, 97 sauces and 109 puddings, and much more on topics ranging from dusting to blood-letting, it aimed to turn the reader into a 19th-century domestic goddess.
The ambitious scale of the work explains the famous confessional introduction: “I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.” Beeton was only 25 when the book came out in 1861; she died four years later from puerperal fever contracted during the birth of her fourth child. Like many of today’s cookbooks, the recipes in “Household Management” vary from the wildly aspirational to the parsimonious. Turtle soup (“to make…with less difficulty cut off the head of the turtle the preceding day”) would have been an unlikely dish among her neighbours in Pinner, near London, while turnip soup, based on “nine turnips, four onions, two quarts of stock”, would have found few takers.
Beeton was a hard-pressed journalist rather than a practised cook: her biographer, Kathryn Hughes, says there is no evidence “that Isabella was interested in cooking”. Compiled under pressure of deadline, the recipes were shamelessly purloined from other cookbooks. Beeton’s claim in advertisements for the book that every recipe was tested seems doubtful, judging by her odder instructions. She maintains that large carrots should be boiled for 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours and macaroni for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. Oddly, her recipe for haricot mutton contains no haricot beans, and she suggests that Brussels sprouts “may be arranged on the dish in the form of a pineapple”.