The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs – The voices of two women with a new view of the words of cooking

The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

Recipe books are immensely popular; often being instant bestsellers. This novel is about the writer of the first recipe book that can be said to be truly inspirational, the result of the work of Eliza Acton. Apparently there is not much known about this talented and creative cook beyond her main book, “Modern Cookery, in All Its Branches Reduced to A System of Easy Practice, For The Use Of Private Families”, but the author has taken what is known and written a novel of subtle power. She has added a character of whom very little is known, but who becomes one of the two strong voices in this engaging historical novel. Ann Kirby is from a distressingly poor family and yet has an extraordinary determination to cook, to make something of her life. Eliza’s unmarried status overshadows her ambitions to write, her poems are in some way a breakaway from her past, and creating new and enriched recipes in a form to train and inspire her true vocation. The writing in this novel appeals to the senses in terms of recording and celebrating the texture, smell and taste of carefully cooked food. It contrasts the richness and possibilities of generous ingredients with the abject poverty of Ann’s family, the rural poor often forgotten in the criticism of the Industrial town conditions. It skillfully tells parallel and overlapping stories through the two women’s voices, both ambitious in their ways, but also realistic about the limitations that have been placed on them. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book of women fighting for their true loves.

At the beginning of the novel there is a Prologue. Ann is a servant and more to a widower, whose gift of a book activates strong memories and a desire to act once she realises what it contains. The first chapter is Eliza’s visit to a publisher who she hopes will take her new collection of poetry and publish it. An excellent description of the man who makes the decisions follows, leaving Eliza confused and bitterly disappointed. Instead of a new volume of elegantly composed words in the style of the much admired Miss Landon, a cookery book is requested, probably in the light of the recent publishing sensation of a book of Domestic Cookery. Mr Longman thinks that the skill of writing a poem can easily be transformed to the writing of a recipe, yet Eliza is unwilling to concede such a thing. It takes a decided turn down in her family’s fortunes to bring her to realise that there may be an art to writing a genuinely accurate and inspiring recipe as the result of experimentation and improvement. Meanwhile Ann has to cope with her much loved mother, who taught her to write, being taken to an institution. She hardly dares to hope that she can improve her lot, and that of her father. Transfixed by her brother’s stories of working in a remarkable London kitchen, she is willing to work hard in the kitchen of the unusual Miss Eliza in order to cook really good food. Both women will have to work with secrets of their past and present to fulfil their dreams.

This is such an enjoyable and readable book that it is a real pleasure to discover seemingly along with the two women the beauty and satisfaction of good food cooked with real feeling. It reflects the poverty of the age, and the perils of choices beyond the security of marriage. It has a lot to say about the expectations placed on women at the time, and the pressure of secrets. I really enjoyed this book which was so well paced and lyrical about food, cooking and capturing a process which had been largely ignored to this point. It also contains historical notes at the end of the book to give the fiction a real context. It is a strong female led book which I thoroughly recommend.