Modern Cookery for Private Families
Life and Times
Eliza Acton was born 17th April 1799 in Battle, East Sussex, England; she died 13 February 1859 in Hampstead, England (now a suburb of London.)
She was the author of two cookbooks:
- Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845)
- The English Bread Book (1857)
She grew up in Ipswich, Norwich, where her father, originally from Hasting, had moved to work as a partner in a wine and brewery business. Around 1817, at the age of 18, she and a friend opened their own boarding school just a bit south in Suffolk, where she worked for four years. She then spent some time in France, and was captivated by the cooking there.
She never married, though some sources feel she may have had a child, by way of a French officer with whom it’s believed she had a romance while in France. Some believe she was even engaged, though for undisclosed reasons the marriage never took place, and Acton returned to England.
Before writing her cookbooks, Acton tried her hand at teaching, and writing poetry. She self-published a collection of her poetry in 1826 and 1827 under her own name, printing 2,000 copies in all, but it wasn’t a success. At some point later she lived in Tonbridge Wells, Kent.
When a publisher, by the name of Longman, suggested that what the world needed instead of more poetry was a really good cookbook (though this may just be an oft-repeated anecdote), she turned her hand to cookbook writing at the age of 43.
She published her first cookbook — Modern Cookery for Private Families — when she was 46 years old, in January 1845.
Hers was the first cookbook in England to list ingredients separately; people liked the format and the book was a success. She tested the recipes herself on friends.
Her books were aimed at ordinary cooks, not for a chef with kitchen staff. Granted, as she was writing for middle-class women at the time, they might well have had a maid and a cook, her audience were women with not enough staff that they could avoid involvement in the kitchen altogether.
Acton was a social reformer and this infused her food writing. She railed against the appearance of processed foods. As store-bought bread started to become more common in England, she said that it contributed to malnutrition (even though it was how people on the continent bought their bread.) This inspired her to write her bread book. She baked her bread in crocks; she was uncertain of the newfangled “bread tins.”
The 1855 edition of Modern Cookery for Private Families added sections on “foreign food”, and Jewish cooking, and included many recipes for curry dishes. The book had what most believe is the first recorded recipe for Mulligatawny Soup. The book continued to be reprinted until 1914, when it fell completely out of fashion.
She had contact with Charles Dickens, also a social reformer, though they probably never met. In Modern Cookery for Private Families, she created a recipe she called “Ruth Pinch’s Beefsteak Puddings, à la Dickens” in honour of the character “Ruth” in Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzelwit.” Acton sent Dickens a copy of Modern Cookery for Private Families when it was first published, and received in return this note from him:
11 July 1845
I beg to thank you cordially for your very satisfying and welcome note of the tenth of January last; and for the book that accompanied it. Believe me, I am far too sensible of the value of a communication so spontaneous and unaffected, to regard it with the least approach to indifference or neglect -– I should have been proud to acknowledge it long since, but I have been abroad in Italy.
Dear Madam/ Faithfully Yours
Acton later updated the section in the book on cooking meat to reflect the influential theories of chemist Justus von Liebig, who published his beliefs that searing the surface of meat sealed in the juices (he was wrong.) Her embrace of his ideas about meat influenced several succeeding generations of food writers who in turn embraced these mistaken beliefs.
Towards the end, she complained that many people were blatantly plagiarizing her books. Many think even Mrs Beeton was guilty of it.
Literature & Lore
“It may be safely averred that good cookery is the best and truest economy, turning to full account every wholesome article of food, and converting into palatable meals what the ignorant either render uneatable or throw away in disdain.”
— Eliza Acton. Modern Cookery for Private Families. 1845.