Eliza Acton is a poet who’s never boiled an egg.
But she’s about to break the mould of traditional cookbooks
And change the course of cookery writing forever.
England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes a new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady.’ Instead, she’s asked to write a cookery book.
Eliza is horrified but her financial situation leaves her no choice. Although she’s never cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the daughter of local paupers. Over the next ten years, Eliza and Ann change the course of cookery writing forever.
Told in alternate voices by the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, The Language of Food is the most thought-provoking and compelling historical novel you’ll read this year. Abbs explores the enduring struggle for female freedom, the complexities of friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye.
What I Thought:
As someone who is not especially fond of cooking, I’ve never really thought of recipe books as poetic. Thank heavens then that Eliza Action, mother of the modern cook book, did not feel the same way!
In The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs brings Eliza Acton to life. While many of us will have heard of Mrs Beeton and her book of home management, Eliza Acton predates her by some years and, in fact, had some of her carefully created and tested recipes stolen by Mrs Beeton for her own book.
We first meet Eliza Acton as she tries to get her collection of poetry published, but she is sent away and told to come back with a cook book – something which sends her away in a fury. But as she begins to think about this idea more and more, and conditions in her own life force her hand, she begins to look at things differently.
Having never cooked before, she embarks on the ambitious project of bringing good food, and clear instructions on how to make it, into peoples’ homes. As part of this, she employs Ann Kirby whose own skills in the kitchen and desire to become a cook help Eliza bring her cook book into the world.
I’d certainly never heard of Eliza Action before, and yet many modern celebrity cooks cite her recipes as an inspiration. It’s really a mark of the quality of Eliza’s book that it is still available today.
Annabel Abbs provides a fully fleshed-out image of Eliza – she is on her way to becoming an old maid, although certainly not by modern standards, and must help the family when they face financial ruin. She has an abrasive relationship with her mother, based mainly around her desire to be her own woman and with her experimentation with foods and flavours you can begin to see the soul of a poet with the mind of a scientist.
Although, as was the social order of the time, the men play the tune in many aspects of this book, it is the relationships between the women that comes to the fore. Eliza and Ann have a complex relationship ad Eliza’s social standing does not allow her to see that treating Ann as a friend puts her in a difficult position. For her part, Ann knows who she is and where she is in the pecking order, but Eliza’s faith in her and the way she treats her as a friend allows her to elevate herself far more than she could have dreamed.
Judging the book by it’s cover, this really is a beauty. The cover design is superb, and some of the special editions are just to die for. In this instance, the beauty of the cover perfectly shows what’s within as this is a compelling story about a fascinating woman who was far ahead of her time.
The Language of Food is published by Simon & Schuster UK.
This post is part of a blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Language of Food. Why not check out some of the other participating blogs below?
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.