Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dining With Mrs. Beaton

We're having leftovers tonight--boeuf bourguignon (which improves with age) for him, salmon quiche (which doesn't) pour moi, with a fresh salad from the garden. This gives me leisure to revisit Mrs. Beeton's Book Of Household Management, which I bought twenty years ago in a facsimile 1861 edition, for $4,99.

Isabella Beeton was something of a phenomenon, or would be, these days. She was married at nineteen, the eldest of twenty-one children, to a magazine publisher whose business she practically ran (all this information is from the jacket copy). She had four children and died after the last birth, at age twenty-eight.

Her book is a compendium of everything you'd want to know about Victorian life, from advice on how to keep your man at home to the first set of recipes that include exact measurements and cooking times.

One of my favorites is the instructions on how to carve a dish called "Calf's Head":

"This is not altogether the most easy-looking dish to carve when it is put before a carver for the first time; there is not much real difficulty in the operation, however, when the head has been attentively examined, and, after the manner of a phrenologist, you get to know its bumps, good and bad. In the first place, inserting the knife quite down to the bone, cut slices in the direction 1 to 2 [here I am omitting the illustration of the calf head]; with each of these should be helped a piece of what is called the throat sweetbread, cut in the direction of from 3 to 4. The eye, and the flesh round, are favorite morsels with many, and should be given to those at the table who are known to be the greatest connoisseurs. The jawbone being removed, there will then be found some nice lean; and the palate, which is reckoned by some a tit-bit, lies under the head. On a separate dish there is always served the tongue and brains, and each guest should be asked to take some of these."

One week of this, the kind of fare that affluent Victorians fattened on, would make me model-thin. But at least our forefathers knew what they fed on--the head on the platter was hard to ignore--whereas I've never set eyes on the slowly pasturing boeuf or the swift-swimming salmon that we will enjoy tonight.

6 comments :

  1. do you know much about her history? there's a great masterpiece theater movie that was made about her a few years back ("the secret life of mrs. beeton"), which prompted me to buy a biography of her.

    she was not the cozy middle-aged housewife type that you might think.

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  2. Oh, vom. Seriously. And I say that as someone who has deer in her freezer that her father-in-law butchered. But nobody's eating the dang eyes!!

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  3. Ok, I posted a totally grossed out comment and it didn't take it. Hmm. Ok, I'll try a more positive angle and not a grossed-out one: we eat deer that my father-in-law and husband butcher and process themselves. And I'm happy that we do this, that this is our red meat, instead of anonymous grocery store beef from who knows where. Every so often there will be a bit of hair that you fish out of the steak cuts...and while this would totally bother me in commercial meat, I see it as a sign that we aren't far from where this came from? You know?

    But nobody's eating the eyes.

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  4. Laurie, o.k., now I'm going to have to find out more about Mrs. B. She always made me feel somewhat mentally retarded, packing so much into such a short life.

    Bridgett, I'm glad both your comments made it in. As I've said before, I wish I were married to a deer hunter--or, better, that my husband were a deer hunter. But I like my meat to look non-anatomically correct, totally homogeneous, sort of like chicken fingers. Which is kind of weird coming from someone who preaches what I preach.

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  5. If you don't get the fish head, you're missing the cheek meat. It's—as you might imagine—awesome. I'm sure this is true for all animals. (I mean, just LOOK at my chubby cheeks!)

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  6. Indigo, you just reminded me: when we had our house on the foothills of the Pyrenees, just south of the French border, the local delicacy was "galtes de porc"--pig cheeks! And they were GOOD.

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