Cooking & Eating

The Skillful Cook, by Mary Harrison

Lately, in my idle moments, I have spent some time poking around on Project Gutenberg’s cookery bookshelf. I’ve found — what, with the distracting news out of D.C. and the semester’s crush of grading — that I’m in serious need of inspiration. And considering that my teaching schedule is such that most nights I don’t get home until well after my usual dinner hour, simply being in the kitchen at suppertime doesn’t really cut it.

So I’ve thought to myself of late: what would get my cooking juices flowing better than a collection of public domain cookbooks, mostly from before 1923, published as primers for housewives and handbooks for the help? What’s better than hundreds of recipes that I never would have considered making on my own, attached to a healthy dose of culinary cultural history?

Nothing. That’s what.

And here is the preliminary result: I have, this week, no recipe to offer you that I can actually recommend.

I can, however, offer some highlights from a cookbook that makes highly entertaining reading — that will make you smile at the degree to which it is of its time (and inappropriate to ours!), and that offers a window into British domestic life in 1905, or thereabouts. And so allow me to present:

The Skillful Cook: A Practical Manual of Modern Experience. By Mary Harrison.

The Skillful Cook, by Mary Harrison

I have no biographical information about Ms. Harrison, except what she reveals in her own writing. She is obviously of a wealthier caste, and like many wealthy women of the turn of the twentieth century, she is eminently interested in the morality of the domestic sphere, and the uplift of the poorer classes. She laments as disastrous the false refinement which, of late years, has considered an acquaintance with domestic matters to be only suitable for servants. And she writes that by taking a hands-on approach to domesticity, a woman of means may improve not only herself, but the less fortunate as well:

A mistress who understands thoroughly the management of a house, by wisely training her servants in habits of order and industry, by teaching them what they do not know and have had no opportunity of learning about hygiene or the laws of health, may be — in fact cannot help being — a blessing indirectly to many homes.

Ms. Harrison tells us that she herself has tried to benefit her poorer sisters by giving them free lessons on food and cookery. But much to her chagrin, invariably, she has found few who are very grateful for such instruction.

The Skillful Cook, by Mary Harrison
Justus von Liebig, via the Wikimedia Commons

On the subject of nutrition, Ms. Harrison is a devotee of the ideas of Justus von Liebig. Today we know von Liebig, in part through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the father of modern conventional agriculture — the fellow who discovered that nitrogen is the essential ingredient in the growth of plants. But it turns out that Justus von Liebig had opinions on human nutrition, as well. And Ms. Harrison shares them.

According to The Skillful Cook, food can be divided into two main categories: flesh-forming or nitrogenous, and heat-giving or carbonaceous. Members of that first family include meat, cheese, and certain kinds of vegetable products like lentils and oats; the second family mostly include fats and sugars. What we want, she writes, is to get a high proportion of albuminoid, or nitrogenous constituents. And in order to do that, eating mostly meat and cheese, bulked up with some bread (for the cost savings) is the most appropriate diet.

Of vegetables, Ms. Harrison says that some, like haricot beans, are more or less wholesome. But potatoes and fresh vegetables contain … little nourishment, and their main function is to keep the blood pure — to stave off leprosy and scurvy.

A good diet for the working class, she writes:

would require such foods as liver and bacon, steak, bullock’s heart, beans, peas, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, &c.; foods, in fact, that would not be too easily digested. Hard work causes the food to be assimilated more readily. A too easily digested fare would cause a constant feeling of hunger.

It is on the preparation of food, however, that Ms. Harrison is at her most eloquent — and her most British. We might ask ourselves, for instance: what is the proper way to cook meat?

All meat, with the exception of salt meat, should be put into boiling water, and should be well boiled for quite five minutes, in order that the albumen on the outside of the joint may be set. The hardened albumen forms a kind of casing. This casing serves to keep in, as far as possible, the flavour and juices of the meat. When the meat has been boiled sufficiently long to effect this hardening, the kettle should be drawn to one side of the fire. The water should be kept at simmering point until the joint is cooked. The general rule, as regards time required for boiling, is a quarter of an hour for each pound of meat and a quarter of an hour over.

How about vegetables? If — you know — you’re interested in purifying your blood? The Skillful Cook has recipes for boiled Brussels sprouts, boiled cauliflower, boiled string beans, boiled asparagus, and boiled sunchokes. And with the exception of the sprouts (which need just a few minutes), her cooking times are all lengthy enough to blanch even the most resilient bean to a middle gray.

And coffee? What if we just want a nice cup of joe?

Make a bag of rather thick muslin, and put the coffee into it. The bag should be rather large, so that the coffee will have plenty of room. Tie the ends of the bag securely. Put it into a saucepan with the water; bring to the boil, and boil steadily for one hour.

The result, Ms. Harrison says, will be strong. But strong may not quite be the right word. It makes me consider that there is a reason, perhaps, why the British are reputed to prefer tea.

Despite how it looks, the point of all this isn’t actually to make fun of Mary Harrison, or of turn-of-the century British cooking. (Okay, it is a little, but there’s more to it than that). It seems to me that there are a couple of important things that we can learn from reading through old cookbooks, and that it is indeed worth taking note:

  • Our class prejudices, and the kinds of paternalistic assumptions that we make because of them, will seem as absurd to future generations as Ms. Harrison’s may be to us.
  • Our dietary practices — low carb, or gluten free, or paleo, or whatever — are very nearly as primitive as all this von Liebig business; we know less about nutrition than we think.
  • Cultural norms about what is wholesome and what is delicious have changed a great deal in the last century; Ms. Harrison surely offers the kinds of recipes she does because, in their moment, they were indeed considered to be good eats.
  • Which means that though they look unappetizing to us, the reason likely has more to do with their being out of context than their being inherently inferior.
  • And which also means it’s likely that fifty or one hundred years down the road, people will look at our recipes with the same kind of jocular eye that I just gave The Skillful Cook.

The fact is that Mary Harrison’s The Skillful Cook is in its passion, and its seriousness, and its good intentions, kind of an extraordinary book. You probably won’t see me make a whole lot of recipes from it, or its Gutenberg-bound compatriots, unaltered. But I do actually think that reading historical cookbooks is inspiring. And almost undoubtedly, the Gutenberg oeuvre will pop up here again — perhaps with an honest-to-goodness selection of recipes adapted to a more modern taste.