When poet Eliza Acton is told by her publisher that “poetry is not the business of a lady” and is asked instead to write a cookbook, she is appalled at the idea. But when her mother is forced to sell most of the family’s belongings and open a boarding house, she reconsiders the suggestion – despite never having cooked.

In need of an assistant, Eliza hires impoverished, half-starved 17-year-old Ann Kirby, who dreams of being a cook.

Over 10 years, the two women bridge the gap in their circumstances to bond over their shared task of creating one of the first cookbooks aimed at domestic cooks.

As The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs (Simon & Schuster, 2022) unfolds dish by dish (“A compote of wild bullaces with thick cream”, “Boiled eels with sage, German Style”, “Ortolans garnished with cocks’ combs”), we discover that there is poetry in the act of preparing food. Even if not everyone appreciates it.

There is also an art to writing recipes that are clear and easy to follow, as Eliza comes to realise.

Best read with a full stomach, The Language of Food is a feast for the senses, full of wonderfully evocative descriptions, like this one:

My mind veers back to roasted pigeon. And from pigeon I travel effortlessly, unrestrainedly back to France … the pots of rillettes fragrant with garlic, the boned forelegs of ham yellowed with breadcrumbs, the blood puddings curled up like snakes, the terrines and pates, the sausages from Lyons and Arles, the jowls of salmon cooked a la genoise, the hundreds of cheese resplendent beneath their glass bells, the perfumers melons and honeyed apricots and … I shake my head, returning my runaway thoughts to roasted pigeon … each must be stuffed with a pat of butter, but should the pat be rolled in minced parsley or cayenne?

The book is also – pleasingly – based on a true story. Eliza’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845, was a bestseller in its time. It sold 125,000 copies in 30 years and remained in print until 1918.

The book is still highly rated by many renowned foodies, including Maggie Beer, Rick Stein and Delia Smith, who called Eliza “the best cookery writer in the English language … a great inspiration … and a great influence on me”.

By Ylla Watkins


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