Recipes from Mrs Darwin

On a recommendation from Sherry @ Sherry’s Pickings in a comment on my previous post on a historical cookbook (Bulawayo Cooking), I ordered Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book. Meanwhile, while waiting for the book to arrive, I ran across a review of the book by Cynthia Bertelsen on her blog Gherkins & Tomatoes, posted soon after the book had been published. It was an overwhelmingly positive review, plus she posted Mrs Darwin’s recipe for Beef Collops – a simple and tasty-sounding dish of thick cut and slow cooked steaks of beef rump in a sauce of onions, soy sauce (yes, they had soy sauce in 19th century England) and pickled walnuts (which is still an English delicacy). Needless to say, I was anxious for my copy to arrive in the post.

Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book
by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway
New York: Glitterati Incorporated 2008

I was not disappointed when it arrived. It is a beautifully illustrated book written by two historians – Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway – with contributions by Janet Browne (Harvard professor of the History of Science and Darwin specialist) and Nach Waxman (famed culinary historian and owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a premier New York bookstore devoted entirely to books on wine & food). The book makes much use of archival sources, including the recipes found in Emma Darwin’s own notebook housed at Cambridge University. Historical background is imbedded in the text, covering all bases: food, household practice, social customs, and insights to Emma and Charles Darwin’s personal life.

As Janet Browne reminds us in the Preface, Emma was not merely an appendage to her great husband, but a lively character whose support enabled him to write his works on his paradigm shifting theories of evolution. She experienced great changes during her life which spanned most of the 19th century: she was born while George III still reigned, was the granddaughter of Josaih Wedgewood (who revolutionised consumer taste in fine china), lived through Napoleon’s wars, experienced the rapid expansion of the British Empire (and as a consequence, the variety of exotic goods that were introduced to the country), read the new novels by Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stephenson, and later in life encountered such things as telephones and bicycles. The food, Nach Waxman reminds us in the Foreward, would not necessarily have been created by Emma Darwin, but selected by her and demonstrated the style of their daily life and how they entertained. In fact, Waxman imagines Darwin and his colleagues (such as Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker) discussing issues of scientific and philosophical import over these dishes around the dining table – served on the Darwin family’s Wedgewood waterlily china.

The core of the book, however, is the recipes. Two of the problems I usually have with historical recipes are types of ingredients used and imprecise measures and instructions. Bateson and Janeway skilfully discuss each recipe and address these issues. For example, under the recipe for Celery Sauce, there is an explanation of Victorian era celery which would have been greener and stronger in flavour than our modern store-bought vegetable grown in poly tunnels. In fact, the description of British Victorian celery seems to be very much like the celery I buy in the Greek market – very different from the pale stalks I find in my UK supermarket. Commercial “convenience” foods were also discussed – like the soy sauce mentioned in Beef Collops, curry powder, the new gelatin (which replaced isinglass by the end of the notebook), and mushroom ketchup. By the way, Geo. Watkins mushroom ketchup (established in 1830) is still available in the supermarket, the label of which does not seemed to have changed much over time.

In every recipe, the imprecise instructions are corrected to modern standards so that the food can be reasonably reproduced. In fact, the authors tested each of the recipes, keeping notes on the difficulties encountered which they share with their readers. Many photographs of the finished dishes also appear in the book. As well as their recipes for the modern cook, the book contains facsimiles of the original handwritten recipes like the one below for one of Emma Darwin’s family recipes for Turnip Cresselly, a smooth purée of new turnips enriched with butter and cream with an added zing in the dash of cayenne pepper.

One critic, whose review I read, dismissed the book, concluding that the food was mundane, ignoring the historical information in the book and treating it just like any modern cookbook. I would disagree with this critic’s approach and conclusions. It is more than a cookbook, although it does highlight and revolve around Emma Darwin’s recipes. It is also a book on Victorian domestic history with little known details about the home life of one of science’s great men, Charles Darwin. And, although one might describe the food as plain, some of it is actually quite appealing. I fully intend to try the burnt rice pudding – once the weather cools down a bit. The sweet has elements of a bog-standard rice pudding, a soufflé and a crème brûlée – or, as the authors put it, “rice pudding with pretensions”. I am very glad I took Sherry’s advice to buy this book.

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Addendum:
On Thursday, 12 February 2009, a dinner was held to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (and coincidentally, the 150th anniversary of his publication On the Origin of Species) at his Cambridge alma mater, Christ Church College. At the dinner, this newly published book, signed by the authors, was presented to the distinguished guests. I know this because, after ordering the book secondhand (at a very reasonable price) a pristine hardback copy arrived in the post. On the inside was pasted a plate with the Christ Church emblem detailing the event. Plus, it was, indeed, a signed copy.

Unfortunately, I could not find any mention of the menu for this dinner. I wonder if they used Mrs Darwins recipes. If they did, I’d like to think it might read something like this:

18 comments

  1. You mean someone discarded their copy? Maybe they too looked at as if it were a modern day cookbook. Sad really. I agree it would be a wonderful read, context makes this style of book and I love a bit of history. I’m going to check my library catalogue right now.

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    • It is a great book and I’m hoping you can find it in your local library. Both of us have been on and off our blogs recently and I am so glad to get a comment from you. Hope you are back to posting soon, but sometimes it is good to take a break. I simply took a break from commenting or reading other people’s posts – bad of me, but there is only so much time in the day…

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  2. Thank you for linking to my review. Please, if you have time, might you correct the spelling of my name and my blog, from Cynthaia Bertelsen on her blog Gerkins & Tomatoes to Cynthia Bertelsen on her blog Gherkins & Tomatoes?

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    • I do apologise – both for the initial misspelling, but also for taking so long to get back to you. I’ve been away for a while and the blog just slid… Will correct immediately. I very much enjoyed both your post and the book.

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  3. You have truly aroused my curiosity . . . I do want to know more and have already had a quick talk to Mr Google about the lowest purse-straining mode of having one in my hands! I just love the imaginative menu you have created from the volume: much of it could be part of quite a sophisticated one belonging to here and now. Have to smile: being Estonian-born I did grow up on ‘liha klops’ oft on my plate . . . oh yes ‘beef collops’ for certain, tho’ don’t remember any soy sauce at the time in Northern Europe 🙂 !

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  4. There is no better way to get a feel for another period than by reading a cookbook. The scribbled notes and adjustments to recipes in the margins, the different cuts of meat and even hints to stretch a meal in tough times.

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  5. As a lover of food history and cookbooks, I was thrilled to read today and learn of “Mrs Charles Darwin’s Recipe Book”. Immediately went online to Bokus (our online book store) and yes they have it. Order will be placed and I will anxiously await it arrival. Thanks so much for the introduction and book review.

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  6. isn’t that waterlily china exquisite? I always like to learn about the women behind the men. And i really enjoy historical cookbooks. thanks for the mention. I appreciate it. cheers sherry

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    • Hi Sherry – sorry for the late reply… am catching up with old posts and missed responses. Yes, that waterlily china is exquisite and even more fascinating to learn Mrs Darwin’s connection to the Wedgewood family. It is a great book and thanks for telling me about it.

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  7. I didn’t know about this book, and now I must get it! I also didn’t realize celery was different in the 19th century (and in your markets). Apparently it was also a “status food,” hard to grow and to obtain, which made everyone want it. Hard to imagine now…

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    • It is a great book and I hope you enjoy it. I didn’t know that celery was a “status” food, but that probably explains the antique celery vases. Haven’t made anything from it yet, but the weather has turned cooler, so it might be time.

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