In The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye (published 2002), I enjoyed reading about food in Jane Austen's novels, and also about meal schedules, kitchens, and popular foods in her time. In the introduction, the authors explain much about foodways of that era. They cite Austen's novels, her letters, and cookbooks from her household as sources for what she and her characters ate. I haven't tried any of the recipes, but I'm fascinated by the way the authors described contemporary meals and mealtimes.
Inspired by reading the cookbook, I've also been rereading parts of Mansfield Park and Emma, which the authors say have the most food references in Austen's novels. I find that I understand more about the habits of households in her books thanks to the cookbook's explanations about how meal times were arranged in that era. People ate a late breakfast, and the dinner hour could vary considerably. Tea and smaller meals or snacks were also served, but the invention of lunch was a later development in the habits of minor gentry of the class Austen wrote about.
As it's Christmas, I was interested in the authors' mention that quite near the beginning of Emma, there's a Christmas dinner. Though short on details, the main course was a saddle of mutton: there's a recipe for a lamb dish in The Jane Austen Cookbook, as well as a bit of discussion of this passage. The children in the family -- who would have been given their meal by their caretaker, separately from the adults, also had mutton, as well as rice pudding.
Mansfield Park has several interesting food passages. For example, at one point the younger son of the family in the central household takes over the hosting responsibility from his brother, who is traveling. His style is not nearly as pleasant as his brother's, we learn: "The soup would be sent round in a most spiritless manner, wine drank without any smiles or agreeable trifling, and the venison cut up without supplying one pleasant anecdote of any former haunch, or a single entertaining story, about 'my friend such a one.'" (Kindle Locations 702-703).
One implication of this passage is the status of the family: only upper class people could eat venison, as hunting was only allowed if you owned the hunting preserve. Food is definitely a profound part of life: "everything will turn to account when love is once set going, even the sandwich tray." (Kindle Location 878).
Hospitality always included food: "After the business of arriving was over, it was first necessary to eat, and the doors were thrown open to admit them through one or two intermediate rooms into the appointed dining-parlour, where a collation was prepared with abundance and elegance." (Kindle Locations 1124-1126).
Another class-oriented passage was about the clergyman who had the "living" (that is, the appointment as the head of the local church) in the parsonage of Mansfield Park. Mrs. Norris is the widowed sister of the Lady of Mansfield Park whose late husband had held the living during his lifetime: she judges the current residents for extravagant taste in food:
"The Doctor [clergyman] was very fond of eating, and would have a good dinner every day; and Mrs. Grant, instead of contriving to gratify him at little expense, gave her cook as high wages as they did at Mansfield Park, and was scarcely ever seen in her offices. Mrs. Norris could not speak with any temper of such grievances, nor of the quantity of butter and eggs that were regularly consumed in the house. 'Nobody loved plenty and hospitality more than herself; nobody more hated pitiful doings; the Parsonage, she believed, had never been wanting in comforts of any sort, had never borne a bad character in her time, but this was a way of going on that she could not understand. A fine lady in a country parsonage was quite out of place.'" (Kindle Locations 421-426).
Jane Austen lived from 1775-1817, a time when most cookbooks were hand-written by upper middle class women in homes very much like the ones where Austen lived: in fact, at least two such manuscripts were used in Austen's own homes. The authors describe these manuscripts in detail, even providing a list of the many contributors to the manuscripts besides their owners.
The Jane Austen Cookbook includes many recipes, which are given in two versions: the first is exactly quoted from the manuscript, followed by a modernized version. The modern recipes explain how techniques of cooking in Austen's day were different from today's techniques, particularly how the open fire where food was cooked at that time required different techniques than modern stoves and ovens.
A nearly total lack of commercially prepared foods also meant that preserves, pickles, produce, meat, poultry, and many other foods were made or grown by households of the type Austen writes about. As you may know from Austen's novels, the well-off households also often supplied poorer families with gifts of food. It's especially interesting that Austen's family ate some foods that were only recently becoming popular in England, particularly tomatoes, which Austen specifically mentioned in her letters, and potatoes, which were fairly new in English cuisine.
Book clubs that create meals appropriate to the book they are reading are clearly intended as one of the types of audience for this cookbook. Indeed, you could really recreate a Jane Austen menu, if you were patient and willing to produce the amazing number of dishes that would have been typical in a dinner party of the time. It would help, of course, if you had a staff of servants to serve and remove the dishes from the dining room. To me, the most surprising fact in the cookbook is the vast number of choices available at a meal even for a rather small number of guests. I think you could have a lot of fun cooking from this book, though I don't know whether I'll do that myself.
Review © 2020 mae sander.