Bibliophile: “The language of food” is a fascinating historical fiction | OUTInPerth

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The language of food
by Annabel Abbs

Simon & Schuster

In 1835, thirty-six-year-old Eliza Acton brings the book of poems on which she has spent the last ten years working to her London publisher. Although he had already published a small volume of her verses, he informed her that people were no longer interested in poetry and that “poetry was no lady’s business”.

It was the same day that his father declared himself bankrupt and fled to Calais to avoid prison for debt. With their house and all their belongings sold to cover some of the debt, Eliza and her mother Elizabeth rent a boarding house in the spa town of Tumbridge in Kent. It is here that Eliza decides to work on a new book – a cookbook that would revolutionize cooking and cookbooks around the world.

Cookbooks at that time seemed to be written by barely literate people. The measurements were imprecise and sometimes not even mentioned, the wording was inelegant and unclear, and the recipes themselves were unappetizing. Eliza was determined to discover the poetry in recipe writing and produce a thing of beauty.

“Exactly as a poem must fall on the ears of its readers, charm them or move them. I have to soften the flavors of my ingredients, like a poet softens mood and meaning… Like a poem, a recipe must be clear, precise and orderly.

At the suggestion of the local pastor, Eliza hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, who comes from incredibly poor circumstances. His mother suffers from what we now know to be dementia but was later diagnosed as insane and his father, crippled by the Napoleonic war, loves beer too much.

Eliza and Ann spend ten years putting together Modern kitchen for private families and the intimacy of the kitchen allows them to bond across social classes. It was a terrible time when servants really had no rights and secrets were buried deep.

It was also a time when most of the population was starving and wealthy women were not allowed to admit the pleasures of the table. “She must eat it – if only to live – but without expressing pleasure in the process.”

Eliza dreamed of a time when people read cookbooks for fun, where they would be stored in bookcases or displayed in living rooms. The story of the creation of the first modern cookbook, a book that would change cookery writing forever, is fascinating historical fiction.

Lezly Herbert


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