When The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery was published in England in the 1890s, Queen Victoria had been the reigning monarch for more than 55 years. It was something of a golden age of domesticity, and ushered in a new style of dining. During this period, Eliza Acton also published her Modern Cookery for Private Families, which sold briskly and introduced some of the conventions of today’s cookbooks, like measurements and cooking times. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management followed, remaining a best-seller for some 50 years.
It has been reported that over 100 popular cookbooks were published throughout the 1800s, so the timing must have felt right to release the eight-volume Encyclopedia. It was a comprehensive, detailed cookbook, with contributions from no fewer than ten chefs de cuisine and confectioners. It was ambitious in scope–the frontispiece states it is ”a complete dictionary of all pertaining to the art of cookery and table service,” containing recipes for all types of occasions, including “ball suppers, picnics, garden-party refreshments, race and boating baskets”.
In many respects, the format of the Encyclopedia is recognizable. It contains recipes, illustrations, and descriptions of food. Sometimes the measurements are more poetic than accurate: a recipe for “broad beans and cream” calls for “a lump of butter the size of a fowl’s egg.”
It also contains recipes that would be rare for today’s home cook. Black pudding, a type of blood sausage, makes up a detailed half a page of the book; step one is “obtain a supply of large pig’s entrails.” It’s also an insight into the storage of fresh produce at the time: because of the two quarts of pig’s blood required, the Encyclopedia states it is essential to make blood sausage only on the same day that the animal is slaughtered.
The section on beverages may seem familiar in this holiday season:
“By a provision of man’s own ingenious construction, so many tasty liquors have been invented by himself to tempt his wavering thirst, that cases are not unknown in which his daily food abounds in the liquid form.”
The recipes are punctuated by a number of lavish illustrations. Some are merely demonstrative–different types of cheeses or decorations for “picnic cakes.” Others show more elaborate table decorations that clearly fall outside the realm of “practical cookery”: a centerpiece of seafood crowned with King Neptune, trident aloft, or a plaster rooster wearing a pince-nez and a hat.
Thanks to the New York Academy of Medicine, which holds the Encyclopedia in its collection, today we are able to glimpse how people cooked and ate in the late 1800s. As we head into the most gluttonous time of the year, feast your eyes on these remarkable illustrations.
“En Surprise”, described as “Surprise dishes as Sweet Entremets” - that is, a dish served between courses - or as centers for buffets.
A ”Wedding Breakfast Table.” The Encyclopedia has alot to say about decorating a table for a Wedding Breakfast. “Considerable skill may be exercised in the arrangement of the Wedding Breakfast and the decoration of the table, but the avoidance of all tall dishes, excepting a central piece and the cake, ought to be studiously observed. Flowers are indispensable, but should not be raised more than a few inches from the cloth. Scrolls and wreaths of flowers paid upon the cloth and curled round and about in pattern between the dishes, have the most charming appearance…”