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It is 1835, and aspiring writer Eliza Acton is mortified when her publisher tells her to abandon the idea of poetry and write a cookery book instead. But a change in the family’s fortunes leaves her determined to learn to cook and to accept the challenge. Together with Ann, her newly-hired kitchen maid, she slowly masters the art of cookery, creates a range of recipes, and publishes her book.
The Language of Food is based on a true-life story. Little is known about the real Eliza Acton, but her book – Modern Cookery, published in 1845, was a best-seller in its time, and many of her recipes found their way into the better known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.
Annabel Abbs takes the few facts available to us and uses them to create two memorable characters – Eliza and Ann – whose voices alternate throughout the book.
Eliza may be initially driven by the need to make money but she soon finds additional motivation for her task. Looking at the few recipe books available at the time she is appalled at how clumsily they are written – imprecise, unhelpful and not fit for purpose. As a poet she aims to make her own book more practical and also a pleasure to read: “like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered”.
The Language of Food is a sumptuous read, full of food described in loving detail. There are frequent comparisons between cooking and poetry – “Fruits, herbs, spices, eggs, cream: these are my words and I must combine them in such a way they produce something to delight the palate. Exactly as a poem should fall upon the ears of its readers, charming or moving them”. An added bonus is the inclusion of some of the original recipes at the end.
However, this is more than just a celebration of food. Eliza starts to become aware that even the rich do not eat well. This was a time when women of the upper classes simply did not concern themselves with what went on “below stairs”, when it would have been shameful for the woman of the house to involve herself in the cooking. The result was bland, unappetising food.
She is also forced to confront the reality of poverty. When Eliza visits Ann’s parents’ home with its lack of food she thinks of “all the lavish food served and wasted in monied kitchens everywhere.” For Ann herself, the child of paupers, “a kitchen is like a puppet show, a fairy tale…”, far removed from her former life. The elaborate descriptions of food and cooking are made poignant when imagined through the eyes of a poverty stricken girl.
Eliza’s concern is both for the rich – who eat badly through ignorance – and for the poor, to whom nourishing food is simply not available. Her mission is now to make cookery both simple and pleasurable for all, whatever their station.
Finally, this is the story of two women trying to escape the restricted roles defined for them in the Victorian era. I have to confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the speed with which Eliza learns to cook well, or by the relative absence of culinary disasters but, that aside, this was an enjoyable and compelling read.
The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 9781398502222