The language of food, by Annabel Abbs • Glam Adelaide

Long before Nigella, Jamie or Ottolenghi, there was Eliza Acton.

Considered the mother of the modern cookbook, Eliza Acton was born into a middle-class family at the turn of the 19and century. A published poet, she was commissioned by publisher Longman to produce a cookbook at a time when cooking was just beginning to be seen as a respectable activity for well-bred women. She went on to change the course of English food writing and cooking, and her influence is still felt today. Yet, little is known about the woman herself.

Historical writer Annabel Abbs once wrote Joyce’s daughter and Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley. With The language of food, its latest subject is not just Acton herself, but Ann Kirby, her employee and co-producer, and the unlikely friendship between these two women. If we know little about Acton, we know almost nothing about Kirby. This is where Abbs applies his considerable research and imagination to develop a believable narrative, wrapped around known facts. It develops Kirby as a girl from an extremely poor background, opening up the story to explore issues of class and economic divides in Victorian England. She also provides Kirby with a mother who suffers from what we would now call dementia and places her in an “insane asylum”, based on the Kent County Insane Asylum.

Each chapter of this delightful novel bears the title of a dish or food, fish bonesfor A good plain Irish stewfor Her Majesty’s Pudding. The kitchen is a hub of more than just food. It’s a place where friendship bubbles with the Scotch Broth and where creativity can find a welcoming home. Abbs writes engagingly about the process of cooking, the joys of eating, and the Victorian social mores that frowned upon a woman actually enjoying her food. Let’s face it: women still suffer from this paradigm.

Throughout Acton and Kirby’s journey to the book, Abbs delivers a slew of fascinating supporting characters, some of whom are based on real people. Of particular interest is Lady Judith Montefiore, author of the first Jewish cookbook in English and a philanthropist actively involved in the development of Palestine. And basically, it’s the story of two women and their unusual friendship, as much as a pioneer in the kitchen.

Endnotes include a historical note, notes on people and places, a list of quoted poems (including those by Acton herself), recommended reading, and some of Miss Acton’s recipes. If I ever find myself with a spare swan egg, I am reassured that I will know how to boil it!

In the best tradition of historical novels, The language of food provides both engaging reading and thoughtful historical information. It’s a testament to Abbs’ writing that you want to go away and do more research on Acton yourself. It is also a beautifully bound soft spine with an embossed cover to resemble Victorian kitchen tiles.

If you like a good novel, history or cooking, then The language of food will not disappoint you.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Published: March 2, 2022
Recommended retail price: $32.99

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