My brother dropped off a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book for me to have a look at. Originally published in 1893, Mrs Beeton was once the bible for the new housewife but is now a curiosity. The book was full of strictures for running a house, from which day of the week to clean the drawing room to plain family dinners for every month of the year. For her, a plain family dinner for instance on a Friday in December, was Soles souche, roast loin of pork, green, potatoes and a Cabinet pudding (a kind of bread and butter pudding made with sponge cake).
Mrs Beeton saw cooking as a sub sector of housekeeping and was concerned about meeting standards of what was right and proper. She was as concerned with the right table decoration as she was with what was cooked for the table. To her credit though, she lists the ingredients in season accompanied by recipes to make at that time. Mrs Beeton includes a wealth of technical information about cuts of meat and food preparation and her expectation of the skill of the every day housewife were high.
The reach of Mrs Beeton lasted for a long time and was evident in the first cookbook I ever owned, a present from my grandmother for my tenth birthday. The Illustrated Teach Yourself Cookery was aimed at young girls who liked to help Mother in the kitchen. Like Mrs Beeton, Teach Yourself Cookery was also keen on table setting and how to wash your dishes properly. I quickly skipped those parts and turned to the Baking for Tea section whose grubby pages still tell the tale. Despite the constant supply of cakes and biscuits being pulled out of the oven by my mother, my greedy little sweet tooth wanted more. I soon mastered cup cakes, Monte Carlo biscuits and chocolate cake.
With recipes for such family favourites as boiled salted meat, stewed mince and steamed meat pudding, they should be forever grateful I stuck to the sweetie section of the book.
The strictures on table setting are absent from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. The Ottolenghi empire rolls on with his emphasis on mixing vegetables with interesting textures and flavours into new dishes. Unlike the formality of meeting standards of earlier cookbooks, Ottolenghi encourages experimentation and creative mixing of flavours. He is a compiler of flavours and his recipes can be used as a guide rather than strictly adhering to what is laid out. Using his philosophy, I swap around the ingredients with what I have to hand. No toasted almonds? Then swap for walnuts and change the spice/herb mixture accordingly. For Ottolenghi, cooking is a creative exercise and he happily plays around with flavours and ingredients.
The evolution of cookbooks from the early emphasis on meeting standards and doing things right to being playful and creative in the kitchen mirrors the march of modernity. We have thrown off the conformity of Mrs Beeton, to all toss together pomegranate and tomato salads with Ottolenghi. Though a bit more Baking for Tea wouldn’t go astray.