Bibliophile | ‘The Language of Food’ is fascinating historical fiction

The Language of Food
by Annabel Abbs

Simon & Schuster

In 1835, thirty six year-old Eliza Acton takes the book of poems that she has spent the last ten years working on to her London publisher. Even though he had previously published a small volume of her verse, he informed her that people weren’t interested in poetry anymore and “poetry was not the business of a lady”.

This was the same day as her father declares he is bankrupt and flees to Calais to avoid debtors’ prison. With their house and all their belongings being sold to cover some of the debt, Eliza and her mother Elizabeth rent a boarding house in the spa town of Tumbridge in Kent. It is here that Eliza decides to work on a new book – a cookery book that was to revolutionise cooking and cookbooks throughout the world.

Cookery books at that time seemed to be written by people who were barely literate. Measurements were imprecise and sometimes not even mentioned, the wording was inelegant and lacking clarity and the recipes themselves were unappetizing. Eliza was determined to discover the poetry in recipe writing and produce a thing of beauty.

“Exactly as a poem should fall upon the ears of its readers, charming or moving them. I must coax the flavours from my ingredients, as a poet coaxes mood and meaning … Like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered.”

On the suggestion of the local pastor, Eliza hires seventeen year-old Ann Kirby who has come from incredibly impoverished circumstances. Her mother has what we now know as being dementia but then was diagnosed as madness and her father, crippled from the Napoleonic War, is overly fond of the ale.

Eliza and Ann spend ten years putting together Modern Cookery for Private Families and the intimacy of the kitchen allows them to become friends across the social class divide. It was a terrible time when servants really didn’t have any rights and secrets were buried deep.

It was also a time when most of the population was starving and wealthy women weren’t allowed to admit to the pleasures of the table. “She must eat of it – if only to live – but without expressing any pleasure in the process.”

Eliza dreamt of a time when people would read recipe books for pleasure, when they would be stored in libraries or displayed in parlors. The story of creating of the first modern cookbook, a book that was to change cookery writing forever, is fascinating historical fiction.

Lezly Herbert


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