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Cooking Historically

It’s food month here at HSG, a theme I can embrace wholeheartedly. I love food. I love to cook it, and I love to eat it. I like to read about it, and even write about it as well.

One thing, out of many, that I enjoy about historical romance is imagining what my characters eat, and the methods employed to cook it. In Victorian England, of course, there was no such thing as fast food, except perhaps for the pie man on the corner, and most foods were painstakingly prepared. Just baking a loaf of bread was a monumental undertaking, given the vagaries of coal or wood stoves.

In my first book, set in 1860s England, the heroine is a cook. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what kinds of things she would cook or how she would go about it, so I did some research.

To imagine what a Victorian-era kitchen would like like, take a glimpse at an actual Victorian kitchen,virtually untouched for a century: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2037644/Victorian-kitchen-remained-untouched-60-years.html.

The cookbook as we know it today was first popularized in the Victorian era, in response to the growing middle class and the increased need for servants, especially cooks. There were over 100 best-selling cookbooks and household guides published during the nineteenth century, intended primarily for the middle class. There were a number of celebrated cookbook authors, among them Eliza Acton; Isabella Beeton (whose Book of Household Management has been revised continually since 1861, even though she died in 1865); and Charles Francatelli, who at one time served as chef to Queen Victoria.

Many of these cookbooks can be accessed for free at GoogleBooks.  I can’t guarantee the instructions are easily translatable to modern times, however.  For example, the recipe for Turtle Soup in Mr. Francatelli’s book is three pages long, and begins, “Procure a fine lively fat turtle, weighing about 120lbs. . .”  The first instruction reads, “When time permits, kill the turtle over night, where it may be left to bleed in a cool place till morning. . .“  I think I’ll stick with the Mulligatawney Soup, thanks.

Do a search for Victorian cooking and you’ll come across a lot of sites.  Here are just a few:
* http://19thcentury.wordpress.com.  Browse and you’ll find a number of posts on cooking.
* http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/francatelli-bills-fare.php, which features a menu for each month of the year, taken from the 1861 cookbook by Charles Francatelli.
* This is a great site which features original articles from Victorian publications. http://www.mostly-victorian.com/cooking.shtml  In addition to articles on cooking from “Girls’ Own Paper,” you’ll find articles on beauty, fashion, how to host a children’s party, and a bride’s first dinner party.

I did try to cook a few things from a modern book (the name of which I have utterly forgotten) which featured Victorian-era recipes. My family was unimpressed–my baking skills often leave much to be desired, but my attempt at baking Victorian biscuits was worse than usual.  My son was fairly certain they’d be an adequate substitute for hockey pucks.

Are you interested in historical recipes?  Feel free to share your favorites!


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About Marin McGinnis

Clevelanders are tough, a bit cynical, and just a little crazy, and Marin McGinnis is no exception. She writes Victorian era romance, set in whichever locale takes her fancy at any given moment. When she's not chasing after big dogs or watching tweenagers skate around Ohio hockey rinks, you can find her hanging out here with her HSG friends, at marinmcginnis.com, or on Twitter @MarinMcGinnis.
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4 Responses to Cooking Historically

  1. LOL. I definitely won’t be making any turtle soup! Fun post. :)

  2. LOL – I do believe I would have made a terrible pioneer…if I had to kill my own food, I’d starve. :)

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