REVIEW: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen by Annabel Abbs
Before Mrs. Beeton and well before Julia Child, there was Eliza Acton, who changed the course of cookery writing forever.
England, 1835. London is awash with thrilling new ingredients, from rare spices to exotic fruits. But no one knows how to use them. When Eliza Acton is told by her publisher to write a cookery book instead of the poetry she loves, she refuses—until her bankrupt father is forced to flee the country. As a woman, Eliza has few options. Although she’s never set foot in a kitchen, she begins collecting recipes and teaching herself to cook. Much to her surprise she discovers a talent – and a passion – for the culinary arts.
Eliza hires young, destitute Ann Kirby to assist her. As they cook together, Ann learns about poetry, love and ambition. The two develop a radical friendship, breaking the boundaries of class while creating new ways of writing recipes. But when Ann discovers a secret in Eliza’s past, and finds a voice of her own, their friendship starts to fray.
Based on the true story of the first modern cookery writer, Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen is a spellbinding novel about female friendship, the struggle for independence, and the transcendent pleasures and solace of food.
TW – exhibitionism, sexual fondling
CW – the cooking done often centers on subjects and manners of preparation that might be distasteful for vegetarians and vegans
Dear Ms. Abbs,
I can’t help but think that the success of the GBBS was in some ways an inspiration for this book. And if it is, I applaud the fact that you’ve done something different with a book about British cooking than so many other books I’ve seen – and some I’ve read – that go straight for some kind of competition. Perhaps I’m totally wrong about this.
Until I began reading the book and doing a little research about Eliza Acton, I have to confess that I’d never heard of her but it sounds as if I should have. Mrs. Beeton’s name was drifting around in the back of my mind but Eliza Acton? Nope. Well, now I know it and I feel a need to track down and read some of the recipes she and her assistant painstakingly tested and perfected. As so little is known about her life, I was ready for whatever you might have devised to embellish and add spice and depth to her story.
The book is wonderfully descriptive and filled with little details that make it and the time period come alive. I was with Eliza as she trudged down a stinking London street, sweating through her silk dress to meet the publisher who would both dash her hopes as well as give her a new direction to pursue. Where things really took off was when she and her beleaguered mother came to rest at the rented house where they will reside now that her father has fled his creditors and gone to Calais. It was here that Eliza found her calling as she began to test, perfect, and write down recipes she knew, ones she’d been sent, and ones she read from older cookbooks that did such a lousy job of presenting a usable recipe for those who had no knowledge of them.
Eliza couldn’t and didn’t do all this on her own – in real life or in the story. Ann, a downtrodden daughter of a madwoman and a soldier grievously wounded fighting Napoleon, was found a position with the Actons by a clergyman who (reluctantly) does many things for the family even though he never seemed thrilled about it. There is a reason presented later in the book that dovetails with what would probably be the impetus for his actions.
Ann turned out to be my favorite character. She was the most honest person as well as the hardest working. Eliza might treat Ann fairly well, actually very well for a servant, but Eliza’s head was often off in a cloud as she mentally reviewed the best herb to use and which cooking technique to employ. It was Ann who was actually cleaning out the stove, schelping in the heavy buckets of water, plucking the birds, skinning the eels, and scrubbing the grease stains off the floor.
There was a good reason that Ann’s mother knew how to read and thus could teach Ann. I was surprised that Ann had spot on instincts and the innate ability to describe how seasonings she’s never tasted taste to her and also improvise ways to use these herself. Reading the ways Eliza and Ann prepare the scrumptious sounding food certainly made me hungry. Getting an up close view of the kitchen they worked in was at first a bit off putting – that is until a filthy London kitchen is described that would have had me returning any food that came out of it. Ugh.
The backstories given to Eliza and Ann served to highlight the immense distance that we’ve come in terms of gender equality – unequal though that still is today. It helped me understand the importance of the reason behind why Eliza was so determined to forge ahead with not only her dreams of writing and publishing her poetry but also the cookbook. Her sense of self identity and self worth were more crucial to her than things that other women of her time valued and saw as their path to security. Being insulted by a French chef also didn’t damp down Eliza’s fire to bring quality cooking and food to her fellow English either.
Watching Ann was like seeing a parched plant finally being watered, put out in sunlight, and allowed to thrive. Eliza showed her privilege in most everything she did and though she had a clearer understanding of the poor than when she first met Ann, there were times I still wanted to smack her. Ann’s growth as a person was lovely to see though I waited sadly for her to learn the truth about something. The poor at this time were not only downtrodden and cheated but, just because they had no money, had to accept decisions and actions imposed on them by their “betters.” When Ann finally made the choice to confront someone about this, even though I didn’t see it, I smiled.
Some choices are made by both women that readers might quibble over and be disappointed in. I would have liked to have seen their entire relationship, or at least got to see why they ended up going separate ways. But I think that Eliza and Ann’s characters have by this point been detailed and illuminated for us so that what they do makes sense. Eliza realizes something about herself that allows her to choose wisely for the future of someone else while pragmatic Ann still must navigate a world skewed towards those who have rather than those who have not. Still she manages to get what she desires in the end. B