Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book, Revived and Illustrated
Reviewed by MM Pack, Fri., May 29, 2009
Mrs. Charles Darwin's Recipe Book, Revived and Illustratedby Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway
Glitterati Inc., 144 pp., $35
When we think about Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, what he ate at home is probably not the first thing that comes to our minds. However, food certainly can serve as a portal to larger understanding. To coincide with Darwin's 200th birth anniversary, authors Bateson and Janeway deconstruct Darwin's wife's recipe notebook to create an opulently illustrated, annotated glimpse into a Victorian family's diet, with about 50 recipes explained and updated for the modern kitchen.
Emma Darwin was Charles' first cousin as well as cherished wife; as an upper-class lady, it's likely she did little cooking herself, but she supervised a prosperous household of 10 children, constant visitors, and a large staff. Her handwritten recipes – probably collected for the instruction of servants – reflect the unadorned, everyday cooking of 19th century England. There are some exceptions, including a basic but spicy recipe for chicken curry and a dish of braised beef elevated by soy sauce and pickled walnuts. Although Charles Darwin suffered from precarious health and a delicate digestion, he apparently loved sweets; this is reflected in the preponderance of his wife's recipes for cream- and egg-based puddings, gingerbreads, jams, and preserved fruits. For each recipe, Bateson and Janeway begin by cooking Emma's version; they explain its probable context, comment on their results, and then adjust it for modern measurement and taste. Their wry commentary is as interesting as the facsimiles from Emma's notebook and the beautifully reproduced food illustrations from period texts.