Eliza Acton: cookery writing pioneer
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Eliza Acton (April 17th, 1799 - February 13th, 1859) was an English poet and food writer who produced one of Britain's first cookery books aimed at the domestic reader. In ‘Modern Cookery in all its Branches…’ , published in January 1845, she introduced the now-universal practice of listing ingredients and giving suggested cooking times for each recipe. Acton was also the first to take a popular recipe for plum pudding and rename it ‘Christmas pudding’.
Although born in Battle, Sussex, on April 17th, 1799, Eliza was raised in Suffolk where she would later run a girls' boarding school before spending time in France. On her return to England in 1826 she published a collection of poetry. Nineteen years later and her cookery book, written in an engaging prose for a middle-class audience, was released. The book was well received by reviewers, and was reprinted within the year with several editions following until 1918, when Longman, the book's publisher, took the decision not to reprint. Nearly eighty years later and ‘Modern Cookery’ was finally reprinted in full, since when the book has been much admired by 20th and 21st century cooks.
‘Modern Cookery’ consists of mainly English recipes, although Acton labelled several of them ‘French’. A chapter covers curries (and potted meats), and gives recipes for Eastern ‘chatneys’ (chutney), treating them as a naturalised Anglo-Indian dish, rather than of solely Indian origin.
For each recipe Acton described the cooking process following it with a list of ingredients and the total cooking time required for the preparation of the dish. This approach was Acton’s own innovation and meant ‘Modern Cookery’ differed significantly from other cookery books. Acton wrote that each recipe had been cooked and ‘proved beneath our own roof and under our own personal inspection’ (Acton 1845, p. x).
Sometime after ‘Modern Cookery’ was published, Acton moved from Tonbridge to Hampstead in northwest London. There she became the cookery correspondent for the weekly magazines ‘The Ladies' Companion’ and ‘Household Words’, and began writing research for a book on nourishment for the ill, ‘Invalid Cookery’. Her research was interrupted, however, to write a new edition of ‘Modern Cookery’. This was published in 1855, and renamed as ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’, the shortened name by which it is best known.
The success of Acton's first editions of the book led to it being increasingly copied by other cookery writers. In the preface to the 1855 edition, Acton wrote of ‘the unscrupulous manner in which large portions of my volume have been appropriated by contemporary authors, without the slightest acknowledgement of the source from which they have been derived’. In the later years of its publication, ‘Modern Cookery’ was eclipsed by the success of Isabella Beeton's bestselling ‘Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management’ (1861) which, just as Acton had predicted, included several recipes plagiarised from Acton’s work.
Disappointed that the 1855 edition had not included as much information as she would have liked on bread-making, Acton set about redressing this deficiency. Two years later ‘The English Bread-Book for Domestic Use’, a more academic and studious work than ‘Modern Cookery’, was published in May 1857. This work combined a history of bread-making in England with a study of European methods of baking, an examination of the ingredients used, and recipes for different types of bread. Acton also drew attention to the common practice of the time by which millers and bakers adulterated bread flour with the addition of alum and what she called ‘other deleterious substances’.
Acton, who suffered from poor health for much of her life, died at home on February 13th, 1859, at the age of 59. She was buried four days later at St John-at-Hampstead church, London. Her legacy is often overshadowed by Beeton, but modern professional chefs and cookery writers, amateur cooks and foodies are all indebted to Acton’s innovative style. We hope more people will become more aware of Eliza Acton and her pivotal role in the history of English cooking, and be inspired to obtain a copy of ‘Modern Cookery’ and try some of her recipes.
Acton, E., (1845), ‘Modern Cookery in all its Branches’ (2 ed.). London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.
1. The full title of the book is ‘Modern Cookery in all its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families In a Series of Practical Receipts, Which Have Been Strictly Tested, and are Given with the Most Minute Exactness’.