Mrs Maria Eliza Rundell would have made a wonderful judge on Masterchef. For my international readers, this is a clutch (set, batch, bunch?) of UK television programmes – which I imagine are cloned worldwide – where keen amateurs chefs (and in one version, ‘professionals’ – though one does sometimes wonder: the one who had never jointed a chicken was surprising) compete against each other at various culinary tasks, during which they are sneered at or comforted for failure in a good cop/bad cop routine by a variety of judges. I was introduced to this by a friend, and can report that it is wonderful, potentially addictive rubbish, from the awful catch-phrases (‘It doesn’t get any tougher than this’ – yes it does, actually, if you are being shelled by your government in Syria, or starving to death in sub-Saharan Africa, say) to the interminable ‘dramatic’ pauses, with ‘dudda-dudda’ music and close-ups of tense faces, as the week’s losers and winners are announced. It’s the sort of programme that causes you to hurl things at the screen while yelling, ‘Get over it, it’s only food’, and Mrs Rundell (1745–1828) would have been a natural as the bad cop – apart from her culinary credentials, she can sneer for England.
For her, food is not just a question of healthy diet (difficult enough at a time when contaminated water and adulterated raw materials were normal), but an economic challenge and a moral crusade. ‘We all of us, and at all times, consume more food than health or prudence would warrant. What gives trouble to one man to digest would maintain three in comfort.’ Her outlook is cosmopolitan: she quotes the Koran in support of her views, and has an especial admiration for the ‘virtuous and unobtrusive frugality of the French’. ‘A French family would live well on what is daily wasted in an English kitchen.’ And the recipes, ‘collected during twenty years’ experience in housekeeping’, come from around the world: ‘The mulakatanees and curries of India; the sweet pillaus, yahourt, and cold soups of Persia; the cubbubs, sweet yaughs, and sherbets of Egypt; the cold soups and mixed meats of Russia; the cuscussou and honeyed paste of Africa; a light imitation of turtle, and methods of addressing the real, &c. &c. have been, for the most part, inserted with a view of introducing a less expensive, a more wholesome, and a more delicate mode of cookery.’
But an extraordinary aspect of the long introduction to her Domestic Economy and Cookery for Rich and Poor, first published in 1806 (i.e. more than fifty years before the better-remember Mrs Beeton), is her remarkable animus against servants. She urged her readers to take back control of their kitchen from the servants, not only to improve the family’s health and to save money by economical use of resources, but because servants were so absolutely frightful. Not that this was entirely the servants’ own fault: ‘Many mistresses, who subscribe to the Bible Society, have servants at home without a Bible. Let them take home a common Bible, and books, of which there are many suited to their capacity, both engaging and instructing.’ Because, ‘Is not idleness the source of all evil? What then can be expected from a number of idle people sitting down together from three to five hours every evening, deprived by dependence and distrust of every sense of honour, with no spur to improvement, and every incentive to vice?’
Mrs Rundell anticipates Dickens’ creation of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House by nearly fifty years: ‘There is a great deal of time, precious to their families, wasted by well meaning and virtuous women in running after charitable institutions, whilst their children are suffering from neglect, or abandoned to neglectful servants…’ There are examples of servants cheating, adulterating food to make it go further and selling the excess, colluding with tradesmen to inflate bills for services rendered and splitting the profits, or a maid leaving a post in high dudgeon because her mistress kept the tea caddy locked and she could not therefore entertain her own friends at tea. And that is before Mrs R. gets started on the pretentiousness of the middle classes (forcing themselves into the company of their superiors, for example), and the fecklessness of the poor…
Before the recipes begin, there is a useful section on how to keep the home healthy, and the disastrous results (‘to which I was an eye-witness’) of poor drainage and non-existent sanitation; followed by instructions for dressing and laying the table, and the care of linen. The tea table, the breakfast table, and balls (‘If the cook is not accustomed to make ices, they had better be got from the confectioner, and two large cakes’), are discussed, before at last we get to the nitty-gritty: instructions for making tea, coffee, and chocolate are followed by a section on carving meat and fish, and then we are off into the salads… There are sample menus for everything from family dinners (including those for the ‘middling orders’), to actual banquets involving the king, and recipes for everything from mock turtle brain balls to wassail cup.
Mrs Rundell compiled the book originally for her daughters, and later ‘gave’ it to the publisher John Murray, a family friend, for whom it became a major asset, appearing in many new editions. According to the ODNB, Murray paid her £150 in 1808, but she refused further payment ‘for what I considered a free gift to one whom I had long regarded as my friend’ – until 1814, when she accused him of neglecting the book, and various legal wrangles followed, which climaxed in Mrs R. offering the work to Longman in 1821, and Murray taking out an injunction… The edition which we have reissued is that of 1827 (published by Longman). I might give the iced pistachio cream a try for Easter Sunday.