Economy vs. Extravagance in Eliza Acton's Modern Cooking cover

Economy vs. Extravagance in Eliza Acton's Modern Cooking

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Sophie focusses on how the content of recipe books aimed at middle-class housewives can be a perfect place to look for the tensions and contradictions involved in carving out an identity in a fast-changing world.
The Recipes Project





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Economy vs. Extravagance in Eliza Acton's Modern Cooking

In their final year of study, undergraduates at British universities produce a 10,000-word piece of original, primary source research, called the dissertation.

It has been a great pleasure for me this year to supervise Sophie Hill’s dissertation.

Sophie spent her year trawling through old recipes, and–I confess–reading them in more depth and detail then I often do.

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In the post below, Sophie focusses on how the content of recipe books aimed at middle-class housewives can be a perfect place to look for the tensions and contradictions involved in carving out an identity in a fast-changing world where reputations were often forged around the family dinner table.

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In choosing Mrs Acton’s book as her case study, Sophie helps to show that Mrs Beeton was not alone in creating this new genre of culinary writing which provided a script for respectable domesticity to the aspiring housewife.

Rachel's Dissertation

By the mid-nineteenth century, the culinary best-sellers of the past such as Hannah Glasses’ Art of Cookery (1747) had become increasingly outdated as a new market–with new needs–emerged for cookery books: the rising middle classes. Recipe books were increasingly aimed directly at this audience, such as Eliza Acton’sModern Cookery (1845).

Acton was aware of the audience she was addressing, stating in the introduction:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skillfully prepared...

...particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization (p. viii).

Recipe books intended for the middle classes provided the focus for my dissertation, which examined three well-known Victorian cookbooks and how they each reflected their target audience.

I did this through a close reading of the recipes, the ingredients they required, and the assumption each author made about what sort of equipment women had in their kitchens.

Wood-engraving of one of Acton’s “fancier” recipes – Orange Jellies in Modern Cookery, 1845. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Doing this highlighted the expectations placed on the middle-class housewife to practice good household economy, while simultaneously demonstrating the wealth and status of her family.

This idea was particularly well-illustrated in Modern Cookery which contains copious recipes for cheap, economical family-dishes like ‘Irish Stew’ and ‘Potato Soup’ whilst at the same time providing instructions for numerous extravagant, dinner-party recipes such as ‘Salmon à la Genevese’ and the aptly named ‘Fancy Jellies’.

The tension between economy and extravagance made visible by the different types of recipes that Acton includes in Modern Cookerywas further highlighted by the ingredients used in each case.

The idea of ‘household economy’ had was a mainstream concept by the time that Acton’s book was published–and the use of leftovers in meals played a key part in this.

Acton’s recipes frequently demand the middle-class housewife religiously reuse whatever was left from previous dishes.

Her ever-so-frugal recipe for ‘Economical Turkey Soup’ is an excellent example of this, as she directs the reader to use the ‘remains of a roast turkey, even after they have supplied the usual mince and broil.'However, because the Victorian housewife was charged with displaying middle-class status within the home and since food could ‘communicate many things about those who offered it;

From financial wealth to the possession of cultural capital’[3], it was only fitting that Acton’s “extravagant” recipes emphasize the use of the finest and freshest ingredients.

After all, these were dishes designed to impress. This is particularly well demonstrated in recipes such as ‘Lobster Cutlets (A Superior Entree)’, which Acton notes is an ‘excellent and elegant dish’ and includes in its ingredients

a couple of fine fresh lobsters’, ‘good béchamel sauce’ and ‘three or four ounces of the freshest shrimps.

As I concluded in my dissertation, the presence of both economical and extravagant recipes, as well as the ingredients used in these recipes, is reflective of a wider tension.

On the one hand, there was the need for the middle-class housewife to display the signs of her family’s wealth and social status, thus distinguishing them from the working classes.

This was done by providing luxurious dinner-party spreads. But on the other hand, the middle-class housewife needed to maintain the household’s economy.

Crucially, however, the extent to which Acton’s middle-class housewife could throw such parties was arguably hampered by the reality of budget constraints.

The spine of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, 1845.Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

After all, the number of cheap, economical recipes in Modern Cookery emphasises that the housewife had to be cautious with the food budget during the week–especially if she had any hope of maintaining the facade of extravagance displayed through dinner parties!