The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs: A vibrant and emotional glimpse into the life and career of an extraordinary and resilient woman - book review -

If you have a taste for a story that will feed both your senses and your literary appetite, then feast on a delicious book which has been exquisitely concocted from the real-life story of a fascinating but forgotten female cookery pioneer.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 16th February 2022, 4:55 am
The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs
The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

‘A recipe can be as beautiful as a poem.’

The Language of Food is a truly mouthwatering blend of culinary and historical novel writing, and comes from the pen of Annabel Abbs, an author whose gift is to lift women from the shadows of history and place their lives at centre stage.

And after the runaway success of her award-winning debut novel, The Joyce Girl, which gave a voice to Lucia Joyce, the talented but troubled daughter of Irish writer James Joyce, Abbs brings us the remarkable story of 19th century poet and cookery book author Eliza Acton, and Ann Kirby, the young kitchen maid who became her pioneering partner.

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Acton’s 576-page Modern Cookery, which was first published in 1845, became a bestseller in weeks, revolutionising cooking and cook books around the world. Her biggest innovation was to not just list the ingredients and give accurate measurements, but also to champion nutritious food and persuade the public to eat a healthier diet.

And it is the remarkable tale of how a published poetess – whose middle class upbringing meant that she had never even learned how to boil an egg – became a renowned cookery writer that was the inspiration for Abbs’ intriguing and uplifting novel.

In 1835, and after the success of a locally printed anthology, 36-year-old Eliza Acton makes her way from her Ipswich home to a London publishing house clutching her new collection of poems which she has been writing diligently for the last ten years, and which she hopes will be accepted and published for a larger audience.

But despite conceding that Eliza’s poems are ‘neat and elegant,’ the publisher tells her that ‘poetry is not the business of a woman’ and instead asks her to go home and write a cookery book which is what readers really want from women. England is awash with exciting new foods and spices but no one knows how to use them.

Eliza feels humiliated to have her poems spurned and to be asked to write something as frivolous and functional as a cookery book but when her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, and she and her mother move to the Kent town of Tonbridge to open a boarding house, Eliza has no choice but to consider the offer.

Never having cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing rather than simply repeating the ‘messy, strangled prose’ and ‘inexact and scruffy’ recipes inside the books currently available.

To assist her, Eliza hires 17-year-old Ann Kirby, the poverty-stricken daughter of a war-crippled father and a mother with dementia, and plans to make her own recipe book ‘a thing of beauty.’

Over the course of the next ten years, Eliza and Ann develop an unusual friendship – one that crosses classes and social divides – and together they not only break the mould of traditional cookbooks but, as Eliza puts it, give their lives meaning and purpose and ‘a tacit permission to exist.’

The Language of Food is a delight from start to finish… a vibrant and emotional glimpse into the life and career of an extraordinary and resilient woman whose story is not just a celebration of the eternal joys of cookery but a revealing exploration of the battle for female emancipation and the powerful bonds of an unlikely friendship.

And it is the ambition, innovative spirit and sheer passion of Eliza and Ann – two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum brought together by their love of cooking – which shines through as together they change the course of cookery writing forever.

While Eliza has stumbled on a cookery writing career through her family’s straitened circumstances and a somewhat patronising conversation with her publisher, Ann has unexpectedly but providentially found a class-defying friendship and work that she could only ever have imagined in her dreams.

United to Ann ‘in some odd and inarticulate’ way, Eliza recognises that the teenager has her own ‘thread of poetry’ running through her and admires the girl’s honesty, curiosity and intelligence… while Eliza’s presence makes Ann’s heart ‘leap like a spring salmon.’

With chapters that alternate between the narratives of the two women, and written with an elegant and immersive beauty which puts poetic artistry into prose, we are transported into the kitchens of the early Victorian period when cooks were starting to experiment with exotic spices, fruits and ingredients arriving from all over the world.

Sixteen years later, and conveniently two years after Eliza’s death, Mrs Isabella Beeton published her own outstandingly successful Book of Household Management which included hundreds of recipes plagiarised from Acton’s Modern Cookery.

But even before Mrs Beeton’s bestselling book appeared, Eliza discovered that copycat food writers were already poaching her recipes and denounced them in a later edition of her own book as ‘strangers coolly taking the credit and profits of my toil.’

With the sights and smells of heavenly dishes drifting from every page, the emotional blending of two women who both suffer the pangs of guilt and loneliness and the restrictions of family duty, and punctuated throughout by a thread of mischievous humour, this is food, friendship and feminism in a powerful, heady and memorable fusion.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £14.99)