How to Lay a Cloth

Nonfiction by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)


"....The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron are much more
serviceable in life than philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queans."

Mrs Beeton was always famous for her rich and lavish recipes, but my own favourite, for Anchovy Butter, is not so much lavish, as tricky. "Wash, bone and dry 2 dozen anchovies", say the instructions. When I look at the tiny anchovy fillets I buy in a tin, I am filled with admiration for Mrs Beeton's cooks.

The enormous popularity of Mrs Beeton's book of Cookery and Household Management, first published in 1857, was due to the sudden growth in England of a wealthy middle class. Newly rich families wanted to "do like the gentry" but they had not learned these skills at their nanny's apron-strings. Most had not even had a nanny. For people like these, Mr Beeton's weighty, but comprehensive, tome was a suitable training manual. For us, it gives a fascinating glimpse of their society and its conventions

Cookery books of every age are similarly revealing, especially those which used advertisements to help cover the printing costs. Today's cookbooks, with their microwave dinners and meals-in-a minute recipes, suggest the small importance we place on the preparation of everyday food. Everywhere in our society the emphasis is on speed and simplicity. And modern advertisers offer us a multitude of sophisticated labour-saving devices. But, as Mrs Beeton's book shows, it was not always like this.


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