Lead Review

  • Book: The Language of Food
  • Location: England
  • Author: Annabel Abbs

Review Author: Tina Hartas



It is England, 1835, and Eliza Acton, a spinster, has already had one slim volume of verse published and has laboured long and hard over her next offering.  When she visits her publisher, however, she is told that “poetry is not the business of a lady.”  He recommends that she go away and produce a cookery book instead.  England in 1835 is full of exciting new cookery ingredients from all around the world and there would be, the publisher thinks, great demand for a cookery book that would tell women how to use them. Eliza is appalled – like many women of her class, she has hardly ever set foot in a kitchen, much less cooked anything.  But her father’s subsequent bankruptcy forces him to flee the country and this leaves Eliza and her mother in a perilous financial situation so she begins to consider the publisher’s suggestion.

Research into existing cookery books shows her that most recipes are hard to follow, imprecise in terms of quantities and instructions, and generally badly written.  Eliza feels sure she can do better and begins the task of learning to cook and collecting recipes.  To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a crippled father and a mother with dementia, and over the next ten years, they work as a team, cooking and researching, forming an exceptionally close friendship that would have been extremely unusual between mistress and servant.

Abbs, author of the wonderful award winning The Joyce Girl inherited a collection of old cookery books and discovered Eliza Acton, quickly realising that her recipe writing was far superior to her peers and also that Acton’s personal life is shrouded in mystery and this inspired her to flesh out the story and produce this excellent novel.  The story is narrated in turns by Eliza and Ann, two characters so carefully crafted and well rounded that the reader is able to understand how this unusual relationship could flourish.  In The Language of Food, Abbs has produced a really gripping story that also gives the reader pause for thought as it explores the endless struggle for female freedom and the appalling conditions of the rural poor in England at that time.  But, most of all, this is a novel that is a delight for the senses, beautifully written, with recipes that intrigue and inspire.  Abbs’ wonderful prose makes the reader feel that they are in that Victorian kitchen with Eliza and Ann, tasting, smelling, sampling. For those who love cooking, this is a novel that will send you scurrying to the kitchen to try things out and perhaps more importantly, The Language of Food will introduce a whole new generation of readers to the wonderful and inspirational Eliza Acton.

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