Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Victorian Chef

The Victorian Chef
In this post, I would like to focus on Victorian chefs and how they present their cookbooks. The two chefs I will focus on are Charles Elmè Francatelli and Alexis Soyer. Soyer is more widely known for his art but Francatelli is less popular. Taught in France (to be clear Francatelli was not French), these chef’s were exposed to exquisite kitchens and worked under extravagant persons.  Exploring their cookbooks and personal upbringing, I found that their writing is a reflection of distinct relationships between rich upper class and working class peoples.
            Many working class people were uninformed to cooking properly, and in turn their meals lacked nutrition and variety. In turn, many renowned chefs began writing cookbooks that catered to them. Some even personally shared their methods with the poor, and suggested ways they could cook cost-effectively. Assuming poor families did not have much time to prepare meals, I believe families that used these cookbooks benefitted greatly. One particular chef was Charles Elmè Francatelli, born in 1805. Although he was an Englishman, he studied the art of cooking in France, and earned his diploma from the Parisian College. After returning to England, “In 1850, he then became chef at the Reform Club, taking over from Alexis Benoit Soyer, who had resigned in May of that year” (
One of his renowned cookbooks, entitled “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes”, was written in 1861and later reprinted by Pryor Publications in 1993. Francatelli truly enjoyed cooking, and wrote this cookbook to ensure that those who used it would make the best meal without using a wide variety of utensils, or spend a great deal of money. Although poor families would be saving their pound, it didn’t mean that the recipes he wrote were dull or bland—they ranged from simple everyday meals to more extravagant ones for holidays. Francatelli’s book provided an economical and practical way to boil different meats, make sauces, puddings, meat pies, tea, coffee, beer and breakfast foods. Some key ingredients for these dishes came from scraps, or the less popular cuts of the animal like bones or the heel of a cow to make soup. Here is a fine recipe that includes beef:
This is an economical dinner, especially where there are many mouths to feed. Buy a few pounds of either salt brisket, thick or thin flank, or buttock of beef; these pieces are always to be had at a low rate. Let us suppose you have bought a piece of salt beef for a Sunday's dinner, weighing about five pounds, at 6 1/2d. per pound, that would come to 2s. 8 1/2d.; two pounds of common flour, 4d., to be made into suet pudding or dumplings, and say 8 1/2d. for cabbages, parsnips, and potatoes; altogether 3s. 9d. This would produce a substantial dinner for ten persons in family, and would, moreover, as children do not require much meat when they have pudding, admit of there being enough left to help out the next day's dinner, with potatoes.

            His cookbook also contained recipes for meals in bulk, which was beneficial when the weather was harsh. He emphasized that his “excellent practice should become more generally adopted, especially during the winter, when their scanty means of subsistence but sufficiently yield them food in quantity to sustain the powers of life in a condition equal to their hard labour”. In publishing this cookbook, Francatelli showed that although he was very successful in his career, he still cared about the health and well-being of those who were not as fortunate as him.
            Looking closer into the vocabulary and tone of Francatelli’s, “A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes”, I found that Francatelli is genuine and not demeaning. Even on the first page, I could tell that he wrote the cookbook because he cared and not for recognition. He introduces his cookbook as a means to save families money, encouraging them to abide by his instructions because he knows it will be beneficial for them, “…strive to lay by a little of your weekly wages to purchase these things, that your families may be well fed, and your homes made comfortable.”(47). Francatelli also gives the impression that, although he is the knowledgeable on giving direction, these families will be able to do it on their own terms: “…you will all be able to test in your own homes” (47). There is an amount of respect that Francatelli has, dissimilar to the next chef to be discussed, Alexis Soyer.

Alexis Soyer was born February 4th, 1810 in France, Meaux-en Brie. Although it is rumored that his mother wanted him to join the church, he got caught up in the art of cooking under his older brother, Phillipe. One of his first major accomplishments was becoming chief cook at Boulevard des Italiens, one of the four grands boulevards, a place where upper class peoples would meet. Later in 1831, he accepted employment in the London Kitchen of the Duke of Cambridge (this is where his brother Phillipe worked) where he worked for a number of marvelous people, including: The Duke of Sutherland, the Marquis of Waterford and the Marquis of Ailsa at Isleworth. In 1837 he was graced with an appointment at the Reform Club in London, but later asked to leave: “Alexis hearing about the plight of the Irish peasants, during the potato famine of 1847, asked by Russell's government for help. The Reform Club granted him leave of absence. Alexis went to Dublin, Ireland, and set up the first properly designed soup kitchen” ( Although this may have seemed like a humble act of kindness, I was not sure of the authenticity of his actions.

Soyer claimed he was interested in learning about the ways and habits of the working class, and also that wanted to make himself useful by sharing his knowledge of cooking with them. He wrote Shilling Cookery for the People (1854), in which a series of letters written to a fictional character named ‘Eloise’. In one particular passage, Soyer is writing to Eloise about his experience attempting to teach a woman how to cook ox cheeks correctly. Before she was able to receive proper instruction, the woman had been overcooking the meat and wasting lots of ingredients. After a quick lesson from Soyer, though, the woman learned the correct way to cook and even shared the recipe with her neighbours. Looking closer into the dialogue, though, Soyer is condescending, and some phrases altered my view of his intention.
First, Soyer seems condescending through a strange way of describing snacks to be given to children: “when cold, may be cut into pieces, and given to children as food.”(35). My thought here was, what else would it be useful for? I find that Soyer is hinting that poor children are barbarous creatures, or animals. He is also condescending when he makes comments about the lack of quality of utensils and dishes in the poor woman’s home. When the meal was done cooking, he states, “serving cups into a beer jug, having nothing better, and, to her grat surprise, cut the cheek with a very bad knife”(35). These statements did not need to be said, and could have been left out—it is obvious that underprivileged people won’t own high quality utensils. It made me wonder if he was really writing these cookbooks for the poor or with the intention of amusing individuals of his rank.
            Second, it seems as if Soyer may have published this cookbook too feel good about himself, or for fame: “and what a high feeling of delight and satisfaction it will be to us, should we find out that the result of our labour is crowned with success”(34). Soyer’s tone of voice here seems unaware or neglectful of the plight of the poor. Also, even though he seems to want to immerse himself in the culture of the working class, he does not seem very deeply interested or to take them seriously, “I have made a point of visiting the cottages and abodes of the industrious classes generally”(33).

            The Barton Family in Mary Barton exemplifies a poor family unit that may not have needed the expertise of Francatelli or Soyer. In the second chapter, where the Barton family is to have guests over for tea, Mary is sent out for groceries. Mrs. Barton tells Mary to get eggs, a pound and a half of Cumberland ham, a pennyworth of milk, a loaf of bread and six penny of rum for the tea (ch.2). She gets it and proceeds to fry the eggs and ham for breakfast. The significance of this excerpt is that not all poor families needed guidance or handouts to live happy, full lives, “What an aspect of comfort did his houseplace present…” (ch.2)
            When comparing Soyer and Francatelli, they were both established chefs who worked at variety of kitchens in Europe. They took leave from their high positions to go and do service that benefitted the poor. Getting out of their comfort zones, though, may have brought out the bitter truth in Soyer’s view of the poor. In contrast, Francatelli doesn’t intrude or give light to the lack of luxury items in working class homes, or appear to condescend. On the bright side, though, any feeling each chef has towards the working class is irrelevant because of the positive i mpact they brought to many individuals with empty stomachs.

Bloy, Marjie. "Alexis Soyer (1809--1858)." Alexis Soyer (1809--1858). Marjie Bloy, Ph. D., Senior Research Fellow, the Victorian Web, 22 Apr. 2002. Web. Nov. 2014.
"Charles Elmé Francatelli." N.p., 30 Dec. 2005. Web. Nov. 2014.
Evans, Dyfed L. "Celtnet Francatelli Recipes and Cookery, Home Page Read More at Celtnet: Http:// Copyright © Celtnet." Celnet, n.d. Web. Nov. 2014.
Ford, Frank C. "Alexis Benoist Soyer" Alexis Benoist Soyer Frank Clementlor Ford, n.d. Web. Nov. 2014.
Francatelli, Charles Elmè. Whitstable: Pryor Publications, 1993. Print.
Shilling Cookery for the People. Whitstable: Pryor Publications, 1999. 33-37. Print.
Mary Barton. Project Gutenberg.Release Date: August 10, 1999 [eBook #2153]This revision released December 9, 2013. Web. Nov. 2014.

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