It’s pancake day! Which seems like a good opportunity to celebrate someone whose cooking extended far beyond pancakes. Eliza Acton (1799 – 1859) was the writer of the first cook book aimed at the home cook, in 1845.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed chutney, mulligatawny soup, or Christmas pudding has much to thank Eliza Acton for. Her 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, also known as Modern Cookery in all its Branches was where recipes for these dishes were published for the first time.
Modern Cookery bucked a trend. It was the first book of recipes aimed at the interested home amateur rather than a professional chef. It was also the first recipe book to list the ingredients and quantities required – plus cooking times – separately from the method, something so obviously sensible, it’s hard for us to imagine that recipes could ever be otherwise.
Born in Battle, Eliza did not set out to become a cooking pioneer. Her first love was poetry but when a publisher suggested that there were quite enough poetry books already and why didn’t she think about writing about food, she took the suggestion seriously. Acton poured years of research, testing, and tasting into the book and included recipes invented by friends. Dedicated on the first page to ‘the Young Housekeepers of England’, the recipes are bolstered with chatty advice and illustrations of suitable equipment to use, seasonality of vegetables, whether she likes the dish herself, and any other interesting snippet of information she happened to have come across.
The book was considered well written, with many contemporary reviewers commenting that it made a lively read whether you were interested in cooking any of the recipes or not. Simple but attractive woodcut illustrations of ingredients, tools of the trade, and what the finished dishes should look like didn’t only charm the eye but gave the amateur chef the confidence to go to their local fishmonger, knowing they’d be able to tell the difference between a John Dory and a turbot.
Unlike so many recipe books of our times, that aim to wow us with tricky techniques and innovative ingredient pairings, Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families is all about reassuring the lay person that great tasting dishes are perfectly within reach and that she’s there, unfussy, down to earth and reliable to hold our hand through the process. Interestingly for the twenty-first century reader, the book’s lively introduction rails against food waste and recommends ‘nose to tail’ eating two centuries before those phrases were coined.
Modern Cookery for Private Families was phenomenally popular, with every Victorian household owning a well-thumbed copy. It went through thirteen editions before being transplanted in the nation’s affections by new star on the block, Isabella Beeton with her Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which freely plagiarised many of Acton’s recipes.
In 1857 Acton went on to produce The English Bread-Book for Domestic Use, which, despite its title, featured recipes for, among other things, Indian and Turkish breads, German pumpernickel and French baguettes. She also became the cookery correspondent for the magazines The Ladies’ Companion and Household Words,
Today, Eliza Acton’s fans are numerous. Delia Smith once called her ‘the best writer of recipes in the English language’. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Rick Stein are just a few of the big names who claim her as an influence. Some of the recipes in Modern Cookery for Private Families such as pineapple marmalade, Lemon Dumplings, and Mushrooms Au Beurre are begging to be rediscovered, although perhaps there wouldn’t be so many takers these days for her mince pies containing ox tongue and boiled lemons.
Although born in Battle, Eliza spent most of her youth in Suffolk where she co-ran a boarding school. She spent some years in France before returning to England and settling first in Tonbridge, then Hampstead.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett
Correction 16/08/2021: this article was previously accompanied by a misidentified photograph. This has now been removed.