Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Strong Member Of The Cookbook Species

I’m very proud of my cousin, Weslie Janeway, who has put together a beautiful book, Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book, with co-author Dusha Bateson.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. It’s fitting that this collection of recipes has been assembled now. They shed a lot of light on the domestic life of Emma and Charles.

Mrs. Charles Darwin, Emma Wedgwood, was born in 1808 and died in 1896. Charles Darwin was her cousin. They shared a grandfather in Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer. Their families were also linked by the marriage between Darwin’s sister and Emma’s brother.

Emma had a decent education for a woman of her time – she spoke 4 languages and was “an accomplished pianist”, according to Janeway and Bateson.

The majority of her married family life took place at Down House in Kent, which was a 2 hour trip from London, although only 16 miles away. Emma had 10 children. 7 survived into adulthood. A number of long-serving staff also lived with them.

There were gardens at Down, which provided a good deal of the ingredients used in the kitchen, as well as livestock, ducks, hens, pigs. The poultry was used in the kitchen, as well as for Darwin’s heredity studies.

Emma’s job was to run the household and, to that end, she kept a notebook of recipes, which give a fascinating glimpse into this Victorian household. Although this is a book of Emma’s recipes, it is unlikely that she cooked regularly herself. The dishes probably were discussed with the cook, who may or may not have been able to work from written recipes.

Emma may have gotten recipes from her family or friends. Perhaps she was impressed by a dish served in someone else’s home and she wanted to add it to her collection. They would have shared it with her and she would have consulted with her cook, who would have known the rudiments of cooking, as they existed then. The dish would be produced using Emma’s additions or suggestions.

Another interesting thing about this Victorian family is that meals were taken with the children, including when company came. In that way, service in the Darwin household may have been more informal than the usual standard of the day.

There is a description in the book of how dining à la russe replaced dining à la française. In service à la russe, each dish has its own course, instead of a large series of dishes being placed on the table at the same time for diners to help themselves (service à la française). Service à la russe is how we and most restaurants still proceed today.

The authors chose a number of recipes from Emma’s actual notebook. They tested them and reworked them to suit a modern kitchen and some seem very good indeed.

Emma’s method of Buttered Eggs, basically scrambled eggs, shows a sophisticated culinary know-how. Not only does she call for heating the butter and cream before adding them to the eggs, but the eggs are cooked in a double boiler in the style of French scrambled eggs or Oeufs Brouillés.

There’s a very useful cheese straw recipe - just Parmesan, flour, butter, cayenne, salt and a bit of milk that would suit any hors d’oeuvre need.

Anyone that’s familiar with English university food will recognize Scotch woodcock. No, it’s not a little freshly shot bird. It’s toast with a spread of anchovy paste and often scrambled eggs. This version is anchovy paste mixed with cream and egg yolks. Filling and comforting.

I also liked the pea soup recipe. It’s robustly flavored with bacon and turnips.

“Pudding” or dessert recipes include Nesselrode Pudding or dried fruit ice cream, Stewed Fruit and Orange Posset. Emma’s recipe for Raspberry Jam makes sense even today. It includes red currents, which is very smart. They have much more pectin than raspberries, so the combination ensures a nicely jelled jam. (That’s often why you add lemon juice to different fruit jams. It boosts the pectin.)

The forward by Janet Browne is very interesting. It mentions the existence of Emma’s written domestic accounts, which notes her food expenses for things ranging from meat and sugar to candles.

Imagine if we had kept our old shopping lists and food bills and how that would be window into our life at the time. Bottled water and after-work quick meal fixings would be replaced by child friendly foods and car ready snacks to gallons upon gallons of milk to finally the kid-free pantry and fridge of fruits, vegetables and grains that no-respecting teenager would eat. We are what we eat is applicable in past AND modern times.

Mrs. Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book is a very attractively produced book and an interesting look at a specific household in Victorian times. What I find most interesting are the parallels to our own kitchens of today.


DebCarol said...

This cookbook is like someone read my mind and put it in the pages of a book. It is right up my alley. I have checked it out on Amazon and put it on my wishlist. Congrats to your cousin and her co-author - they have a winner here!!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to look for this book it sounds great! The pictures look amazing.

;) amy

Emily said...

It sounds like a wonderful cookbook with great pictures!