As we continue our household adventures with Mrs. Beeton, we are now finally getting closer to feeling somewhat prepared to actually cook something! But not yet! First we must learn the fundamentals of proper marketing or shopping as we would say here in North America and then we must understand the fundamentals of cookery before we stoke up the trusty kitchen range and pick up our first pot!
Chapter four of our trusty volume of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provides our aspiring domestic manager with “A Guide for Choosing and Buying Provisions and Home Requisites.” This guide includes information about the best time of year to purchase certain items, how much they are likely to cost, what kind of tinned meats and groceries are best to stock in your pantry and of course what wines and spirits you should have on hand.
In the 1912 edition of the book, this chapter includes average prices and best season for purchase for common items for both the English and the American buyer. This chapter is one that many modern cooks would also find useful as regards to the best season to purchase produce items. While modern transportation and growing methods have allowed us to purchase most food items all year round, this list provides reference to when they are naturally in season. For example, according to Mrs. Beeton, eels are in season between June and March but are best and cheapest from September to November. An eel connoisseur would want to ensure to only purchase their eels when they are at their finest and the best price!
Of course a well stocked pantry doesn’t just include freshly purchased items such as meats and fruits and vegetables but also requires other provisions and household requisites such as tinned and preserved goods, pantry staples such as grains, flour, sugar, tea, etc., and of course packaged goods such as cookies and biscuits.
Not to be forgotten is the stocking of the wines and spirits. Without fanfare, the discerning reader is provided with a list of wines and their average price per dozen bottles. This list seems to be one place that Mrs. Beeton has chosen to leave off her commentary so it is difficult to tell if she is recommending that households stock at least some of each type – from Australian Wines to British Wines, Sherries, Ports and even Champagne. For the comparative reader, an Australian Riesling could be purchased, on average, for 19 shillings per dozen bottles. Comparatively speaking that would be worth 74 British Pounds, 26 shillings in today’s currency according to the British National Archives Currency calculator, or about 6.5 British Pounds per bottle. ( https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/)
Based on a quick internet search, it appears that an Australian Reisling can be purchased in the UK today for as little as 10 British Pounds. Another way to put this into context is that in 1910 in the UK, this would equate to two days wages for a tradesman. An interesting look at the comparative price of wines over time!
Now that we have a good understanding of the seasonality and price of foodstuffs, we are prepared to consider the art of cookery. Mrs. Beeton has reserved 24 pages to instructions and history of cookery and its variety of methods. According to the book, this is important for the following reason: “Excellence in the art of cookery as in all other things is only acquired by experience and practice. In proportion, therefore, to the opportunities which a cook has had of these, so will be his excellence in the arts.” (p.104)
In the introduction to cookery, the reader is told that there are six reasons that food is prepared and cooked:
- To render mastication easy.
- To facilitate and hasten digestion.
- To convert certain naturally hurtful substances into nutritious foods.
- To eliminate harmful foreign elements evolved in food (for example the tinea of tapeworm in beef and mutton.)
- To combine the right foods in proper proportions for the needs of the body.
- To make it agreeable to the palate and pleasing to the eye.
To these ends, Mrs. Beeton walks the reader through the science and technology involved in this processing of raw materials into edible creations. The six methods of cooking are explored in more depth: broiling, roasting, baking, boiling, stewing, and frying.
A few examples of advice of use, from this chapter:
• The two most common faults with amateur cooks are the giving sufficient time and attention to the details of preparation, and ignorance of the varying actions of the heat.
• The actual process of cooking is immensely facilitated, and success assured, if everything has been properly prepared beforehand.
• All dishes should be duly flavoured with the necessary condiments during the process of cooking, except in the case of roast meats, when salt should be applied just before serving.
• For emergencies, a good substitute for cream can be made with fresh milk, a little butter and flour.
• If fresh-water fish is caught and has to be cooked, wash thoroughly in clean water; if small, fry; if large, stew with a sauce, in which wine or vinegar and aromatic herbs are used.
• Much waste is always prevented by keeping every article in the place best suited to it (in the pantry).
Of course, in everything, we are told that “given certain food, one cook so manipulates it that the consumer is well nourished and pleased; and another cook leaves him hungry and discontented.” (p. 109)
Mrs. Beeton also places a very heavy emphasis on digestion and provides a detailed chart of the time it takes to digest various foods. She makes careful note that in order avoid heartburn or other digestive ailments, the digestive process should not be prolonged beyond four to four and one half hours.
The chapter ends with a chart of comparative weights and measures which is very handy. Many early recipes used measures such as teacupful or a gill, so it is helpful to understand how that might equate to a cook’s familiar measuring system. One teacupful by the way is equal to a ¼ of a pint and 4 gills in liquid is equal to one pint.
So finally, we come to the end of the preparatory chapters and next month our adventures with Mrs. Beeton will take us into the cooking of soups!
Kathleen Powell is the Supervisor of Historical Services and Curator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre and a proud owner of a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.