Methinks that there may still be much to learn from these books, in spite of their advice being nearly two hundred years old. To test the theory, I went first to Household Hints to Young Housewives, published in London in 1852. I chose this one because of the author’s name - or rather, her pseudonym – ‘Mary Careful.’ The name itself positively breathes reassurance, doesn’t it? It is just the thing that a new bride needs. The fact that the author chose a pseudonym is interesting in itself too. It is difficult to imagine, living in an age when celebrity rules as it seems to do today, that anyone wanting to publish a cookery book – or any book for that matter – would choose anonymity.
Mary Careful, in her lengthy preface, mentions her seventy-five years, her arthritis and her eight sons as if these in themselves give her some authenticity – and perhaps they do. She advises the newly-wedded wives to whom the book is addressed that ‘the helm of a vessel fully freighted with affection, wealth, and happiness is placed in your hand to guide – one false step may cast you on a rock of sorrow.’ The advice in her book will ‘place young housekeepers at once within the magic ring of wedded happiness’ by assisting them with ‘the trifles which make up the sum of human bliss.’ Now, I say without fear of correction, that those sentiments are not to be found in any current books on cookery or marriage, or life, - seafaring for that matter.
Mrs Careful gives some sample menus and this one caught my eye for its odd fragment of food etiquette advice below the menu proper.
Soles – Melted Butter
Minced Beef, with Potatoe Wall.
Bread and Butter Pudding.
It is not etiquette to serve up potatoes with fish. If you fancy them, a distinct order must be given.
Believe me, faithfully yours
I have never come across this piece of advice before, and this demonstrates to me the need for a return of the general household manual. I might have been saved from the culinary faux pas of serving potatoes with fish, had I had the benefit of such a manual on my kitchen bookshelves in my formative cooking years.
Perhaps it was part of the longstanding prejudice (and its accompanying misinformation) about potatoes that persisted into the early nineteenth century? Another book of the time,
Cottage comforts, with hints for promoting them, gleaned from experience: enlivened with authentic anecdotes, by Esther Copley (London, 1830), has this to say:
Potatoes should not be boiled in the liquor of which soup is made; they render it unwholesome. If you choose to have potatoes with your soup, let them be boiled in another vessel.
Another regular bad habit of mine exposed – actually cooking potatoes in the soup.
A second, minor point: I am equally intrigued by Mrs Careful’s placing of the spinach on her menu after the pudding.
Here is her recipe for the pudding, which is a rather nice version of this English staple.
Bread and Butter Pudding.
Cut very thin bread and butter; grate on it lemon peel, almond and nutmeg; place it in layers in a dish, strewing a few well washed currants or marmalade between each piece; till the dish up with custard a quarter of an hour before baking; a quart dish will require three quarters of an hour. The pudding may be turned out on a flat dish, and powdered with white sugar.
Custard for this, or any baked pudding, is made as follows:—Beat three eggs with whites, well sweeten and flavour it, then stir it into pint of new milk. An extra egg will increase the richness when required, and varied flavourings can be used—lemon, almond, noyeau, ratafia, cinnamon, coriander, orange, nutmeg, &c.
Bread and butter pudding flavoured with coriander – now that’s an idea!
Quotation for the Day.
It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.