Cooking up a mystery

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By Robert Harland

What’s Cooking?

Monday, May 12, 2014


LIKE millions around the world ¬past and present, I am a great admirer of Mrs. Beeton, the most famous cookery writer in culinary history and, without doubt, the original domestic goddess.

She was legendary for her books on household management and cooking, the first published in London in 1861.

I always believed she was a bustling, middle-aged matron ¬always firmly in charge of the household and queen of the kitchen.

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Imagine my surprise and, frankly, huge disappointment to discover she was in fact something of a fraud; a strip of a girl who couldn't cook and who died ¬probably of syphilis - at the age of 28.

Recent research revealed Mrs. Beeton was no culinary expert, but an astute women’s magazine journalist who saw ‘domesticity’ as a subject ripe for repackaging.

Mrs. Beeton (née Isabella Mary Mayson) was born in London in 1836. She was educated in Germany and became an accomplished pianist.

While visiting London she met and fell in love with Sam Beeton, a handsome and rich man-about-town who published books and popular magazines.

During their marriage they were a successful team. From 1859 she wrote articles about cooking and domestic management in her husband’s publications.

Positive feedback from readers made the couple realize there was a good business to be had in this area so all her articles were published as a book ¬ ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.'

It was a runaway success. It sold 60,000 copies in the first year and by 1868 it had sold two million copies. Although the book contained hundreds of recipes, none of them were Mrs. Beeton originals ¬- she copied them all.

Although her professional life was a roaring success, her private life was less than happy. Her first child died at three months. There followed a string of miscarriages before giving birth again only to see the child die at three years.

Mrs. Beeton died in 1865 just shy of her 29th birthday. It’s generally believed she died of syphilis contracted on her honeymoon from her husband, who in his youth slept occasionally with prostitutes.

Her death was kept very quiet, first by her husband and later by the publishing company that acquired his copyrights. With her book selling so well, it would be very bad for business if readers knew the woman they turned to for advice on everything from boiling an egg to curing a cough, had died of a venereal disease.

The publishers recognized the need to keep the Mrs. Beeton brand alive so they pretended she hadn't died. They went on producing her books with updated prefaces suggesting she was alive and well and still queen of the kitchen and mistress of the household.

Although she was a plagiarist, she was an innovator and added considerable value. For example, she had the radical idea of putting the ingredients at the beginning of each recipe and to note recommended cooking times.

Simple ideas and ones we take for granted today, but in Victorian times, they were indeed revolutionary.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on May 12, 2014.

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