Eliza Acton (1799 - 1859)
Eliza Acton wrote the first modern English cookery book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, aimed at the ordinary reader rather than at professional cooks. She introduced the now-universal practice of listing the ingredients and suggested cooking times with each recipe. She moved to Hampstead in the 1850s, living in Keats Grove.
Isabella Beeton’s bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) was closely modelled on Eliza’s cookbook.
Eliza, the eldest of nine children of a Suffolk lawyer, did not show any ambition to be a cookery writer. At the age of seventeen she, together with a Miss Nicholson, opened a school for girls in Claydon, near Ipswich which lasted for 4 years until Eliza left and the school soon closed down. She was said to be delicate and spent some time in France for her health, where it was suggested that she had an unhappy love affair with a French army officer.
She returned home and the poems that she published in 1826 were mostly about unrequited love. These had modest success.
A decade later she offered Longman a second volume of poems which they rejected, but the publishers suggested she write something more practical.
This was not the end of her poetry. Eliza also wrote two long published poems, ‘The Chronicles of Castel Framlington’ in 1838 and ‘The Voice of the North’ to commemorate the first visit of Queen Victoria to Scotland in 1842.
Taking her publishers advice she applied herself to years of experiments at the stove before venturing into print. Modern Cookery for Private Families was first published in 1845 and was an immediate and lasting success running into several editions. It was the standard work on the subject until the end of the century, establishing Eliza as the first of the modern cookery writers. It is still published today and is available in different volumes.
Though the book was addressed to ‘families’, her own household was just herself and her mother (plus servants), but she collected recipes from friends and tested them mercilessly. When reading her book you can tell she has put in considerable effort – for example, standing over preserving pans to observe the exact moment when redcurrant jelly gels (after eight minutes’ boiling).
Eliza wrote with great charm and clarity, and her methodical mind also led her to a great innovation. At the end of each recipe she listed, very exactly, the ingredients used, the time taken, and the possible pitfalls for the inexperienced cook. (In cookery books up until then this information, if given at all, was muddled in with the instructions on method. This was a completely new format, all other books on the subject being far less exact.
When Eliza really loves something she does not gush but puts her opinion in brackets, as if holding her emotions in. ‘Lemon Dumplings (Light and Good)’, for example; or ‘Mushrooms Au Beurre (Delicious)’. It is this combination of honesty and reticence that makes her Eliza Acton (The Best).
Typical of her style of writing was her recipe for ‘China chilo’:
Mince a pound of undressed loin or let of mutton, with or without a portion of its fat; with it two or three young lettuces shred small, a pint of young peas, a teaspoonful of salt, half as much pepper, four tablespoonfuls of water, from two to three ounces of good butter, and, if the flavour be liked, a few green onions minced. Keep the whole well stirred with a fork over a clear gentle fire until it is quite hot, then place it closely covered by the side of the stove, or a high trivet, that it may stew as softly as possible for a couple of hours. One or even two half-grown cucumbers, cut small by scoring the ends deeply as they are sliced, or a quarter of a pint of minced mushrooms may be added with good effect; or a dessertspoonful of currie-powder and a large chopped onion. A dish of boiled rice should be seen to table with it.
Mutton, 1 pint; green peas, 1 pint, young lettuces, 2; salt 1 tsp; pepper ½ tsp; water, 4 tbsp; butter, 2-3 oz; Cook 2 hours. Varieties: cucumbers, 2; or mushrooms minced, ¼ pint, currie powder, 1 dsp; 1 large onion.
Contemporary cookery writer Delia Smith is quoted as saying Eliza was “the best writer of recipes in the English language”.
Some time after the publication of Modern Cookery, Eliza moved to Hampstead, where she worked on her next book, the English Bread Book, published in 1857. A serious and scholarly account of the history of bread, with a strong attack on the malpractices of bakers and millers in adulterating the product. This book also contained recipes for making bread at home. Unfortunately it did not have the impact of her earlier work.
Eliza Acton’s character seems to have been like a kindly schoolteacher, showing great humour and understanding. She was a well-established middle-class spinster, with a wide and varied circle of friends, several of whom she quotes as the source of some of her recipes. Unfortunately she suffered from ill health for a good part of her life. She died at home in Keats Grove, Hampstead in 1859.
Although Eliza is not quite a household name, she deserves to be. Both her cook books are still published today, which proves her enduring popularity.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011.
The Real Mrs Beeton: Eliza Acton the Forgotten Founder of Modern Cookery by Sheila Hardy (with a forward by Delia Smith (History Press 2011)
Modern Cookery for Private Families, by Eliza Acton
The Elegant Economist, by Eliza Acton
The English Bread-book, by Eliza Acton
This page was last updated on April 27th, 2012.