How Readers Interacted with Culinary Recipes in the Latter Half of the 19th Century: Some Musings

Zenia Malmer


In a time when recipe books targeted towards amateur or inexperienced cooks proliferated, a question that many scholars have asked, is how these publications were perceived and used. Ken Albala, food historian, rightly underlines that ‘we still have much to learn about the modes through which cooks as readers interact with culinary texts'[1]. A question that I ask as a design historian is if the design of information in recipe books was a contributing factor to how recipe books were used.

So how did cooks interact with printed recipe books? I’m afraid I can’t provide a solid answer to this question, but I have picked out what other scholars have said about the subject, and coupled this with my own personal musings. Some primary evidence I found and used for my MA thesis also offers us a glimpse of how the proliferation of recipes in the latter half of the nineteenth century was dealt with by amateur and inexperienced cooks. During my research, I also often wondered if the way in which information was designed, influenced how it was read. How much of the experience with cookery books was shaped by the font or the organisation of information on a page?

A useful article that helped me think about this, is ‘The Design and Use of Nineteenth-Century London Guidebooks’, by Paul Dobraszczyk. The author questions ‘the relationship between typography and reading’, and asserts that:

without typography, or the design and layout of verbal language, there can be no reading; it determines the nature of reading itself. For example, at a macro level, the format of a work of fiction – continuous text – provides an immediate visual confirmation that a linear act of reading is appropriate, that is in a continuous fashion from start to finish, while that of a telephone directory – a list – signals a different kind of reading, that is, scanning and searching. Similarly, at a micro level, capital letters, headings, underlining, indenting and even the size and weight of type present more nuanced clues as to the appropriate reading activity: for example, we pause between paragraphs or pay more attention to text that has been emphasized in some way. In short, the way text appears on a page is directly related to ‘the expected use’ that should be made of it.[2]

Margaret Beetham, author of the well-known A Magazine of her Own (1996), writes that a large part of the success of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was due to the systematization ‘of a previously chaotic body of information’ that characterises Beeton’s famous recipe book. Dividing recipes into more easily-recognisable sections like ingredients, method and cost ‘now seems so obvious’, but like Beetham insists, it is worth reminding ourselves what an innovation it was.[3] On top of this, typography and layout were used as tools to present information in a clearer manner. For example:

Recipe names were in large bold type and were therefore easy to find. The actual recipe was in smaller but clear print, often illustrated with the small line drawings that made the volume so attractive. The mass of detailed information that prefaced each section or was appended to the recipes was in smaller print. Paragraphs were numbered, as well as pages. Along with Beeton’s wonderful cross-referenced ‘Analytical Index’, this helped the reader to find her way easily about the densely packed pages of the text.[4]
A page from the very extensive 'Analytical Index', and an example of a recipe from Beeton's Book of Household Management (1878?)[5]
A page from the very extensive ‘Analytical Index’ from Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1878?)[5]
A page from the very extensive 'Analytical Index' and an example of a recipe from Beeton's Book of Household Management (1878?)[5]

An example of a recipe from Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1878?)[5]

It is clear then, that Beeton’s Household Management was groundbreaking in this sense. However, revisiting some of the gems I found during my research makes me think that there is a dimension to the way in which inexperienced cooks interacted with recipes that hasn’t been considered yet. Published in women’s periodicals like The Queen and The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine from the 1860s onwards were articles that pointed towards a strong sense of dissatisfaction, and not to mention culinary frustration, with recipes.

A review of a selection of cheap cookery books printed in The Queen in 1871 argued that recipes written for ‘ignorant and unintelligent people’ were far from comprehensible. Even recipes as simple as macaroni and cheese were not exempt from criticism. ‘Boil the milk, water, and a little salt; break up the macaroni, and drop it into it; boil till tender; drain, and put the maccaroni into a dish’ was one writer’s example of a badly written recipe. ‘What sort of a result would an unintelligent person following the above recipe implicitly, be likely to obtain?'[6], the writer further probed. Where this recipe came from, and why exactly this was badly written is not mentioned. Instead, a recipe for baked hake as proof of a ‘good’ example is offered instead:

Be careful in cleaning your hake, stuff it with veal stuffing, sew it up with packthread, set it in a baking dish, and put it into a hot oven. Let it bake till the fish parts easily from the bones

To this, the writer still commented:

I should however, have said, “be very careful in cleaning your hake, and when you have cleaned it, wash it well under the tap with cold water.” And I should have added, “for how to make veal stuffing turn to page 27.” Then the recipe would have done very well[7]

One female reader, writing under the pseudonym ‘Spiffins’, wrote a letter to The Queen stating that ‘The fault which I find with cookery books is that the recipes are nearly always impracticable except to quite professional cooks’.[8] She informed us that she didn’t have an expensive cook, but that she enjoyed varying the monotony of the simple fare her cook produced with ‘nice little dishes’, and turned to the food pages in The Queen for recipe inspiration. Comparing herself to Charles Dickens’ character Ruth Pinch during her attempt at making a pudding in Martin Chuzzlewit (1840s), ‘Spiffins’ admitted that at one point, ‘I have trembled as to whether it would turn out a soup or a pudding’. This literary take underlines that even when this reader ‘followed recipes in various cookery books’, a source that was meant to guide amateur cooks, the outcome remained mysterious to her until after the pudding finally emerged out of the oven – thankfully, intact.[9]

This perhaps points out that even though recipes were designed to demystify cookery, they could not eliminate the unpredictability that goes hand-in-hand with cooking, nor could they neutralise the initial insecurity that many other amateur cooks inevitably felt when attempting a more complicated dish. These culinary how-to books, were at times met with frustration from readers because they were unintelligibly written and contained tacit instructions that unseasoned cooks found hard to interpret.[10]

From this, I gather that the way in which inexperienced cooks interacted with recipes was influenced by a combination of designed information, efficient verbal communication, and the simple realisation and acceptance that cookery contained an element of unpredictability, no matter how fool-proof recipes were meant to be.



[1] Ken Albala, ‘Cookbooks as Historical Documents’ in The Oxford Handbook of Food History (2012), edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, p.

[2] Paul Dobraszczyk, ‘City Reading: The Design and Use of Nineteenth-Century London Guidebooks’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 2012), p.126

[3] Beetham, ‘Of Recipe Books and Reading’, p.21

[4] Beetham, ‘Of Recipe Books and Reading’, p.21

[5] Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, (London: S.O. Beeton, 1878), pp. xv & 60

[6] ‘An Old Soldier on Cheap Cook-Books’, The Queen, April 13, 1872

[7] ‘An Old Soldier on Cheap Cook-Books’, The Queen, April 13, 1872

[8] ‘Amateur Cookery’, The Queen, July 15, 1871

[9] ‘Amateur Cookery’, The Queen, July 15, 1871

[10] Zenia Malmer, Mechanical Ice Cream Making in British Homes 1844-1914, Unpublished MA thesis, V&A/RCA History of Design MA, 2014.


Zenia Malmer – 

Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to figuring out how Baumkuchen got its distinctive shape.
Follow me on Twitter! @Zenia__M


© Zenia Malmer, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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