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Emma Darwin's recipe book gives glimpse of evolution

October 07, 2009|By MICHAEL HASTINGS / Winston-Salem Journal

Charles Darwin is forever linked to evolution, thanks to his groundbreaking book "The Origin of Species." Now, his wife is making a contribution to evolution of another kind.

Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway recently edited and revived "Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book" (Glitterati Inc., $35), providing a look inside a Victorian household as well as a study in how cooking has evolved since the 19th century.

Emma Wedgwood Darwin was born in 1808 and lived 14 years past her husband, dying in 1896. That period brought some of the greatest changes the Western world had ever experienced. As the wife of a prominent thinker, Emma Darwin saw much of it firsthand.

She was the daughter of a prosperous industrialist, Joseph Wedgwood, who manufactured the Wedgwood pottery and china that is still famous today.

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And though Emma Darwin played a public role in British society, this book provides an intimate look at her more private role of running a Victorian household. It was not a small task. The Darwins, married in 1839, had 10 children -- though three died before they reached adulthood -- and their upper-class existence entailed a bevy of servants.

Emma Darwin was in charge of the staff. As a well-to-do Victorian woman, she wasn't expected to cook. But her recipe book reveals an intimate knowledge of food preparation. "One of her first actions in her new London home was to take her cook to task for not boiling potatoes properly," the editors wrote. They add that her book includes such helpful hints as the exact timing for boiling onions.

Much has been written about Charles Darwin's ill health, though a certain diagnosis has never been made. From the book, though, we know that Darwin sometimes suffered "vomiting attacks" after dinner parties. His wife also wrote that wine disagreed with him, which was a "tiresome" problem because he couldn't resist it. Perhaps that explains why very few recipes in the book call for alcohol, a common cooking ingredient at the time.

The book is only part of Emma Darwin's original recipe book, with 55 recipes that the editors have reworded to make them work in a modern kitchen.

The evolution of cooking is shown in countless ways. The book has few recipes for meat, though the Darwins ate plenty of it. The editors write that household accounts for 1877 show that "more than 70 percent of the budget for food went to meat, bacon, fish, game and poultry."

Meat was often just roasted -- a practice so common that written recipes weren't needed. Vegetables were also prepared simply, often just boiled, so Emma Darwin had little need to write directions.

Charles Darwin loved sweets, and custards and puddings, made with copious amounts of cream, eggs and sugar and often served with stewed fruits, were especially popular in the Darwin home, more so than cakes. Custards or puddings make up 12 of the 17 sweets in the book.

Eggs, butter and cream also appear in many recipes, such as the fish overlay, a cream-sauce casserole for leftover fish, and in a creamy salad dressing.

Recipes that have not endured over the centuries include veal cake, a terrine layered with thin slices of veal, ham and hard-boiled eggs; celery sauce, made with broth and a touch of cream and served with boiled fowl; and orange posset, something similar to a syllabub, made with wine and cream.

What may be surprising is the number of recipes that would not be out of place on a 21st-century American table.

Beef collops echo homey Salisbury steak, a mixture of slow-cooked beef and onions in gravy.

The Darwins ate chicken curry, still one of the most popular dishes in England as a result of its large Indian and Pakistani populations. The recipe for fish croquettes is very similar to modern fish cakes.

And rice patties, cakes of Arborio (risotto) rice flavored with Parmesan and porcini, would not be out of place in a modern, white-tablecloth restaurant.

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