This is a terrific book: a thoughtful, intelligent, highly readable account of the influence of the written word on Britain’s culinary habits, from Mrs Beeton to the present day. Which makes it mercifully free of gilded boar’s head – not even a whiff of roasted heron.
It helps that the author, Nicola Humble, lecturer in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature at Roehampton University, is also the editor of the Oxford Classics edition of young Isabella’s Book of Household Management. Her proposition, the Big Idea, is that the popular cookbook is not only a reflection of who we are but is itself a force for change – and change can only happen when the climate’s right.
Timing is all, which explains why certain cookbooks achieve massive sales, and others, though vastly influential, do not. How else to explain the astonishing popularity of Mrs Beeton over her predecessor, Eliza Acton – a far classier writer, to whose elegant recipes Isabella owes a considerable debt? Humble makes the