Books & Literature

Book Review: The Language of Food, by Annabel Abbs

HISTORICAL FICTION: Eliza Acton, despite having never before boiled an egg, became one of the world’s most successful cookery writers. Her story is fascinating, uplifting and truly inspiring.

Deliciously charming.

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

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

Historical writer Annabel Abbs has previously written The Joyce Girl and Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley. With The Language of Food, her latest subject is not just Acton herself, but Ann Kirby, her employee and co-producer, and the unlikely friendship between these two women. If little is known about Acton, almost nothing is known about Kirby. This is where Abbs applies her considerable research and imagination to developing a believable narrative, wrapped around known facts. She develops Kirby as a girl from an exceedingly poor background, thus opening up the story to explore issues of class and economic divides in Victorian England. She also supplies Kirby with a mother who is suffering from what we would now know as Dementia, and places her in a “lunatic asylum”, based on Kent County Lunatic Asylum.

Each chapter of this delightful novel is given the title of a dish or food, from Fish Bones, to A Good Plain Irish Stew, to Her Majesty’s Pudding. The kitchen is a hub of so much more than mere nourishment. It is a place where friendship bubbles along with the Scotch Broth, and where creativity can find an accepting home. Abbs writes engagingly about the process of cooking, about the joys of eating, and about Victorian social mores which frowned upon a woman being seen to actually enjoy her food. Let’s face it: women still suffer from this paradigm.

Along the journey to Acton and Kirby’s book, Abbs delivers us a wealth of fascinating, secondary characters, some of which are based on real people. Particularly interesting is Lady Judith Montefiore, author of the first Jewish cookbook in English, and a philanthropist actively involved in the development of Palestine. And fundamentally, this is a story about two women and their unusual friendship, as much as it is about a cooking pioneer.

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

In the best tradition of historical novels, The Language of Food supplies both an engaging read and some thoughtful historical information. It is a testament to Abbs’s writing that you want to go off and do some more research on Acton yourself. If is also a gorgeously bound soft-back with a cover embossed to look and feel like Victorian kitchen tiles.

If you love a good novel, history, or cooking, then The Language of Food will not disappoint.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

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

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: 2 March 2022
RRP: $32.99

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