Zenia Malmer obtained a BA (Hons) in English Studies and Arts Management from Oxford Brookes University and an MA in History of Design at the Royal College of Art and at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was during the MA course that Zenia indulged in food history research on the design, use and perception of Victorian mechanical ice cream makers, the material culture of pineapple-mania and the architectural design of wedding cakes, amongst other topics. After completing her BA, Zenia worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for 3 years and more recently, as editorial coordinator at Octopus Publishing Group for 2 years. She has decided to concentrate on researching and writing full time, and now spends her days seeking out hidden gems in libraries and archives to write about, in the hopes of discovering a suitable PhD topic.
A self-confessed messy cook, Zenia regularly blames her perfectly functioning oven when she ends up burning food – yet again – and often wonders why everything she makes tastes the same.
Connect with Zenia:
Instagram @hungry.historian and @foodinartig
In historical sources, a Victorian female cook is usually portrayed as a master of the art of cookery. What you usually won’t see is the anxious, frazzled woman who can’t figure out why her fail-proof cake didn’t rise, or how she managed to burn a simple Sunday roast, yet again. Blundering is and always has been a natural part of the cooking process, but as modern cooks, it’s hard to remember that when only the gastronomical triumphs have ever been recorded.
Digging into the history of nineteenth century cooking has led me to unveil the presence of the blundering Victorian cook, a much overlooked figure in culinary history, whose story, I am convinced, is worth telling. Food columns in Victorian ladies’ magazines offer unusual insight into the trials and tribulations of housekeepers and cooks. Similar to the ones published today, they unveil a much broader culture for blundering in the kitchen that existed at the time. Even though I am reading them over a century after they were first published, the anxiety and frustration expressed in many of the queries is still resounding, and above all, one gains an understanding of their attempts at culinary self-improvement from a more personal perspective.
One reader wrote in explaining that she was eager to try more challenging dishes because she admitted that her family got tired of eating the ‘plain roast and boiled joint with a greasy hash’ and baked goods that her cook was only capable of making. She could not afford a more experienced cook so she took it upon herself to expand her own culinary repertoire in the hopes of varying the monotony of the plain dishes that her family ate. Comparing herself to Charles Dickens’ Ruth Pinch in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit during her attempt at baking, she admitted that despite following a recipe carefully, ‘I have trembled as to whether (my cake) would turn out a soup or a pudding’. On another occasion, she wanted to make a purée de pois verts (green pea puree or soup) from a recipe she found in a magazine, and had her cook make a fresh batch of stock, which is, as we all know, one of the main ingredients in soup. A girl she hired on occasion to help her in the kitchen, however, didn’t know what fresh stock was, and threw it all away, perhaps thinking it was dirty dish water, leaving the cook to start from scratch again, and forcing the mistress of the household to explain to her hungry family why dinner would be served late[i].
As a modern reader of these columns, I became uncomfortably aware that besides offering culinary advice to readers, the magazine editors themselves were fuelling women’s anxieties about the kitchen by projecting the possibility of failure onto even the most basic of cooking tasks. ‘There are many minor points to be studied by the careful housewife’, one such editor notes, ‘little things which, when they go on right, seem too insignificant to think about, but which, when they are done wrong, cause a great deal of petty worry’. ‘Who feels quite so serene when the tea has been made with water not quite boiling? Who thoroughly enjoys his breakfast eggs when they are served half cold, and cooked to a state suggestive of soft glue?’, the editor further underlines. The resolution offered to readers is as unhelpful as it is patronising. ‘Never boil an egg, steam it’, is the instruction given, along with ‘place the egg in boiling water and leave it well covered for about five minutes; more for those who prefer them harder’. In conclusion, women are reassured that ‘An egg cooked in this manner will be found infinitely superior to any, however carefully cooked’.[ii] With this type of information, it is no wonder that women were left scratching their heads in confusion.
It is safe to say that the blundering cook is a figure that took hold of the Victorian imagination, when one considers satirical books such as William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs. In a chapter so endearingly titled, ‘Dinner-Giving Snobs’, Thackeray unmercifully picks on a hostess’s kitchen: ‘Smiling resolutely through all the courses, smiling through her agony; though her heart is in the kitchen, and she is speculating with terror lest there be any disaster there. If the soufflé should collapse, or if Wiggins does not send the ices in time – she feels as if she would commit suicide – that smiling, jolly woman!’.[iii] Then there were literary characters such as Charles Dicken’s aforementioned Ruth Pinch, whose shaky attempt at making beefsteak pudding was, as pointed out by her brother, like putting in for the lottery and not knowing if the pudding might turn out a stew or something else.[iv]
But there are other, lesser known characters like her. Take Sue, a young lady of means, whose hilarious account of her own cooking disaster was published in a British newspaper. It centred around the making of ice cream, which led to the downfall of an important social event. Narrated by her brother, it begins thusly: ‘It was really Sue’s fault. Nothing would do but she must give a party, and of course she must have ice-cream. Now, the ice-cream that our cake-shop men make wasn’t good enough for her, so she got father to buy an ice-cream freezer, and said she would make the ice-cream herself.’ To make ice cream by hand in those days, a pewter bowl containing the liquid cream mixture that was to be frozen into ice cream was placed in a larger vessel filled with alternating layers of salt and crushed ice. Salt is an indispensable element to the ice-cream making process as it lowers the temperature of the melting ice, and in return enables the liquid mixture to quickly freeze against the inside walls of the bowl containing it. Continuous churning by hand or via a built-in mechanical lever will eventually freeze the liquid into a smooth, creamy mass. For Sue and her brother, however, their dinner preparations didn’t go quite as planned. Asked to help Sue out with the arm-aching act of churning, her brother takes over while she goes upstairs to get ready for the dinner party that was to take place that evening. ‘I turned the freezer for ever so long’, lamented the brother, ‘but nothing would freeze’. ‘I made up my mind that it wanted more salt’, in order to help it freeze faster, he thought to himself shortly before emptying the entire salt cellar directly into the ice cream.
Not surprisingly, the ice cream froze right away, but tasted awfully salty. To repair the damage, he sweetened it with a pint of golden syrup, which, much to his liking, turned the ice cream ‘a beautiful straw colour’. Towards the end of the evening, as the dinner party neared its end, Sue felt confident enough to have Dr. Porter, her guest of honour and potential suitor, try the first serving of ice cream. In a highly comical turn of events, the first spoonful made him leap up from his chair ‘as if something had bit him’, and he went out the door ‘in two jumps’. The other guests cautiously put down their spoons and bid hasty farewells. One guest was described as lying outside all night, ‘groaning like he was dying’. One can only imagine Sue’s disappointment, and not to mention, embarrassment, at having given her guests an unexpected salt overdose.[v]
These stories undeniably make for excellent reading, and I feel bad for having laughed at these women’s misfortunes at times, but I have also developed a sense of empathy towards them that has made me want to seek out other stories like theirs as a result. In a way, all of my own kitchen failures shouldn’t really be perceived in such a negative light, but rather, as a continuation of a long legacy of women who strove for culinary self-improvement, and who contributed towards providing their families with good, wholesome food, and comfortable homes, as old-fashioned as that might sound. Above all, what unites all of these women, beyond their knowledge, whether they were fictional or not, and what has allowed me to gain a better understanding of this aspect of history, is the fact that their culinary failures humanize them.
[i] ‘Amateur Cookery’, The Queen, July 15, 1871
[ii] ‘The Housewife’ column, The Queen, October 21, 1882
[iii] William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, (London: Punch Office, 1848)
[iv] Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1843), chapter 39 (accessed online in January 2017 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/968/968-h/968-h.htm)
[v] ‘Jimmy Brown’s Ice Cream’, Grantham Journal, Saturday 31 December, 1881