By Jennifer Ashley
Death Below Stairs, Book 1 of the Below Stairs Victorian Mysteries
When I decided to write the Kat Holloway mysteries (Book 1, Death Below Stairs, January 2018), featuring a cook in the 1880s, I had to plunge into research not only about Victorian Britain, and not only about the food the upstairs families would eat, but how that food was prepared.
I like to cook and bake myself, and in fact, have a hard time saying no to purchasing cookbooks. And so it was an enjoyment to search for and read various cookbooks from the past, and in doing so, I realized that not all that much has changed.
These days, cookbooks pour out from publishers every month, and this was not much different in the nineteenth century. Publishers in Britain and America published book after book to feed the audience of middle and upper-class women who wanted to put the best possible meals on the table to impress their friends and their husband’s cronies. Ladies of the house pored over the recipes and copied out what they wanted for their cooks (not all cooks could read). Especially popular were cookbooks written by upper-class ladies so all women could serve meals fit for the aristocracy.
My cook, Kat Holloway, learned cookery as an apprentice—she began as a kitchen maid, who would do the mundane chores of chopping, grating, beating, or whatever was required to assist the cook in preparing the meal. In a small household, she’d also scrub the dishes, light the fire, and blacken the stove.
Kat luckily learned from an excellent cook, and she also had a bit of schooling as a child and learned to read and write, so that she could go through cookbooks and perfect recipes on her own. By the time she was in her twenties, Kat was talented enough to be hired as a household’s head cook. Because Kat’s skills were sought after, she could choose to take a post in a kitchen with a large and modern (and expensive) range, on which she could prepare elegant meals.
What kind of meals? The cookbook authors of the past thoughtfully spelled out exactly what should be served to whom and when. Mrs. Isabella Beeton, in particular, whose famous Book of Household Management is a compilation of recipes and advice published in magazines her husband owned, offers menus for every season of the year, for varying numbers of people, and for elegant parties vs family suppers:
Dinner for six persons (October)
First Course: Mock-Turtle Soup, Brill and Lobster Sauce, Fried Whitings.
Entrees: Fowl à la Béchamel, Oyster Patties.
Second Course: Roast Sucking-Pig, Stewed Hump of Beef à la Jardinière, Vegetables.
Third Course: Grouse, Charlotte aux Pommes [Apple Charlotte], Coffee Cream, Cheesecakes, Apricot Tart, Iced Pudding. (Beeton, Mrs. Isabella Mary. The Book of Household Management [p. 493].
She of course provides recipes for all these earlier in the book. (A “fried whiting” is a small fish, dipped in egg, dredged with flour and bread crumbs and pan fried. Anything “à la Jardinière” means accompanied by garden vegetables.)
Mrs. Beeton’s idea of a “plain family dinner” looks fairly involved to me (though she makes good use of the party leftovers):
Sunday: Roast sucking-pig, tomato sauce and brain sauce; small boiled leg of mutton, caper sauce, turnips, and carrots. 2nd course. Damson tart, boiled batter pudding.
I have tried a few of the recipes I’ve found in various nineteenth-century cookbooks, most of which use ingredients that are still common today. Seed cake, so popular in Victorian Britain (enjoyed by Lady Cynthia in Death Below Stairs), is more or less a pound cake flavored with caraway seeds. I’ve made this cake, and though too much caraway isn’t to my taste, the cake is rich and buttery and moist.
Here’s a spicy-sounding one for tomato sauce, from A Few Choice Recipes, collected by Lady Sarah Lindsay in 1883:
“4 pounds of tomatoes, 6 oz. of shallots, and 4 oz. of garlic, to be boiled together gently for one hour. Rub through sieve as much as you can, and boil the pulp you cannot get through with 1 1/2 pints of vinegar, 4 oz. of salt, 2 drams of chilies [1 dram = 1/8 oz.] or 3 large capsicums [bell peppers], for a short time, then add the remainder of the sauce, some mushroom catsup, 2 or 3 cloves, and cayenne pepper. Boil one hour, strain when cooled.”
Though the preparation can seem laborious, none of the ingredients are strange to a modern cook: tomatoes, shallots, garlic, salt, vinegar, chilies or bell peppers, cloves, cayenne. Mushroom catsup was more common at the time than tomato catsup, and can still be purchased today (it is mushrooms boiled and mashed and spiced with anything from onions to nutmeg).
For every book, I must come up with different meals for Kat to prepare, and so I spend much time reading cookbooks, choosing recipes, and putting together menus. I expected when I started that I’d find strange and exotic foods at every meal, but I’m concluding that those in the nineteenth century did not eat much differently from us, at least on a day-to-day basis. Preparation methods have changed because of changes in technology, but I still make tomato sauce with garlic and onions, herbs and spices, and a touch of chili powder to make it pop.
I hope you enjoy Kat Holloway’s stories and her journeys into cookery and murder.