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Cooking up a Victorian Christmas

For modern readers, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol conjures up images of bygone Christmas celebrations, including the Christmas feast prepared by the Cratchit family, complete with goose and steamed pudding.  Many current cookbooks provide updated recipes for traditional Victorian Christmas fare, but what sorts of sources would a middle- or working-class cook like Mrs. Cratchit have used to prepare her family’s Christmas meal?

Numerous cookbooks appeared in the early nineteenth century, but most were geared at professional  chefs cooking for upper-class clients on large estates.  During Dickens’ time, three major cookery books were published with the average home cook in mind.

One was Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, which was first published in 1845.  Acton’s biggest contribution to culinary literature was her inclusion of exact times and amounts of ingredients in her recipes.  Acton also provided a list of ingredients at the end of her recipes.  These features were a completely new feature for cookbooks; cookbook authors before Acton were much less precise in their recipes.  Acton’s Modern Cookery was published in several successive editions and remained a standard work throughout the Victorian period.

Another popular work was Alexis Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People, published in 1855 for a working-class audience.  The book provided basic recipes for plain, cheap meals and sold at an affordable price.  Soyer was a French chef who emigrated to England at the age of 21.  During his professional career, he was a highly public advocate of French cuisine.  His first cookbooks were aimed at chefs in upper-class households, but also he wrote The Modern Housewife, aimed at middle-class cooks, and worked with the military to better preserve food for long naval voyages and to improve rations and camp cookery during the Crimean War.

beetonPerhaps the most famous Victorian cookbook is Beeton’s Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton, which is still in print today. Mrs. Beeton’s husband was a writer, publisher, and editor, and as a young wife, she joined him in his business, writing for the women’s magazines he published.  Mrs. Beeton, who began the book in her mid-twenties, borrowed many of her recipes from Acton and Soyer, but her major contribution was her attention to detail and the clear structure of her recipes.  For example, she arranged recipes alphabetically by sections, and provided lists of ingredients before the preparation instructions.  The Book of Household Management was issued in parts between 1859 and 1861, meaning that the cost of the book for buyers was spread out over time.  Later, an illustrated edition and various cheap re-issues were offered by Beeton and his successors, ensuring the book’s continued popularity.

Editions of these cookbooks and others can be found in Special Collections holdings.  To find them in the library catalog, perform a subject search using the search string “cookery, English.”

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