Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Calf's Head Pie

On a cold January day in 1865 the dread puerperal fever took the life of the mother of all Yuckylicious books, Mrs. Isabella Beeton, who was just 28 years old and who had just given birth, a week before, to her fourth child.

You do not want puerperal fever. Let’s just clarify right off the bat: if you are going to deliver a baby, wash your hands first. And after. The great irony here is that of all cookery books, hers probably contains the most references of cleanliness, an attribute always foremost in her advice for just about anything. The outrageous phrase wrongly attributed to her that aims to illustrate how thorough her recipes are (“First, catch your hare…”) could easily be replaced with “First, rise at six and wash your house.” That is, if you have the misfortune not to be able to employ at least a maid and cook.

Of curious note to a modern reader is that she expects those women of the class likely to have to prepare the remains of a head to read at a level many of today's college students would find trying, even though compulsory education for children was only instituted five years after her death. 

Another thing you might not want is leftover calf’s head. In her chapter on “The Art of Using-Up’” Mrs. Beeton advises us that “Most cooks like to work only with fresh materials, a practice which must be guarded against.”

For a woman who lived at a time when childbirth was probably going to kill you at some point, and some 60-odd years before the antibiotics that could have saved her were discovered, learning to make the most of life without refrigeration must have seemed like sage advice.

Mrs. Beeton’s Everyday Cookery, Ward, Lock & Co., date unknown (just post 1948)
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