How Victorian Cookbooks are Helping Us Cope with Covid

It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by the Internet, that one way to cope with Covid is to bake banana bread. From social media to Stanley Tucci’s recent diary of quarantine cooking in The Atlantic to the New York Times’ “At Home” section, Americans are hearing at least one persistent and unified message about Covid-19: we should all be cooking. Or baking. Preferably bread.

At first glance, the reasons behind the uptick in home cooking seem obvious. Shopping for food is a fraught experience, whether vying for a delivery spot online or braving a brick-and-mortar store. Dining at restaurants is, for the most part, still limited. Making our own food is cheaper—and perhaps safer—than ordering take-out.

But, these days, we are not just cooking; we’re Covid cooking. We’re not just whipping up a Wednesday night stir-fry, but also learning how to grow the necessary vegetables. We don’t just bake our own bread, we read up on how to cultivate yeast. Collectively, we are coping with Covid by taking the practical and making it poetic.

So why, during this global pandemic, are we belaboring a chore we’ve been trying for the past century to expedite? What significance can the act of baking a loaf of banana bread have in the face of a global pandemic?

Because recipes offer us not simply a way to kill time, but to reclaim it. As a planet, our relationship with time has been abruptly and traumatically altered by Covid-19. No longer do we have the power to draw a line between “public time”—the structured time of the office, the restaurant, the store—and the more fluid “home time.” Now, we exist in “Covid-time”: a strange, disorienting mash-up between the two. Clocks and calendars make little sense. Instead, we measure the passage of time by infection rates, testing availability, re-opening “phases”: 1, 2, 3.

And so, when, in a moment of Covid-induced despair, we click on that recipe for banana bread, we are, in fact, going Victorian. But not because we’re bypassing the store to painstakingly bake from scratch. Because we’re following the Victorian recipe—a modern technology deliberately forged as a tool of civic response to threats of disease, economic insecurity, and rapid social change.

Like us, middle-class Victorian women found themselves living a life anchored to the home. Largely barred from the professional sphere, middle-class women were tasked instead with building domestic spaces characterized by the same efficiencies and economies as the rapidly-industrializing world of commerce. Yet, as scenes of domestic distress in nineteenth-century novels such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—picture Meg, weeping over her pots of spoiled jam—and Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens—picture Bella, poring anxiously over the pages of a cookbook—make abundantly clear, standardizing home cooking proved daunting for many women.

One problem, according to culinary writers Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton, was the recipe.

Passed down orally for centuries, then circulated as manuscripts within communities, the pre-industrial recipe was hardly bulletproof. Visually compressed into a single block of text, the presentation and precision of culinary information ranged widely. Take, for example, this seventeenth-century recipe for white bread by Hannah Glasse:

We are given no list of ingredients. Cooking times and ingredient measurements are intermittent and often vague (“some yeast”; “When your spunge has stood its proper time”).[1] In the pre-industrial recipe, the process of baking bread rests on holding space for a certain ambiguity of experience.

Not so for Beeton and Acton, who made it their mission to modernize the recipe into a domestic technology meant to aid a rapidly industrializing nation devoted to progress but mired in issues of poverty and poor public health. [2] Both the problem and the solution, many Victorians believed, could perhaps be traced to the kitchen.

From penny pamphlets to magazine columns to cookbooks themselves, complaints about the “unscientific” state of traditional English cookery and its implications for public health began to bubble up around mid-century across the print marketplace. According to these writers, working- and middle-class women who cooked without a proper knowledge of food’s chemical makeup and nutritional value posed a grave threat to the economic and public health of the nation. An article in Samuel and Isabella Beeton’s popular women’s magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, lamented the “unwholesome diet and irregular hours of eating” practiced by working- and middle-class men and women. These practices, the article declared, “have produced indigestion, disordered stomachs, [and] diseased livers.”

Acton concurred, arguing in an updated 1851 edition of her hit cookbook, Modern Cookery, that “an improved system of practical domestic cookery, and a better knowledge of its first principles, are still much needed in this country” (vii). While food waste was one “very serious evil” of culinary ignorance, Acton insisted that “a greater evil still” is “the amount of positive disease which is caused amongst us by improper food, or by food rendered unwholesome by a bad mode of cooking it” (vii). “As the “great laboratory of every household,” Beeton likewise warned, “much of the ‘weal or woe,’ as far as regards bodily health, depends upon the nature of the preparations concocted within its walls” (39).

Across the board, writers agreed that what could salvage this public health crisis was a wholesale revision of the cookbook. And the market responded. By the late 1800s, a deluge of publications claiming to offer scientifically-backed culinary instruction had so flooded the Victorian print landscape that The Times designated cooking “the most fashionable pursuit at this moment in London.” [3]

Yet out of the plethora of publishing around cookery that emerged throughout the Victorian era, it is Acton and Beeton who are remembered, because it was in their hands that the recipe itself became a modern technology; that, at last, it absorbed the industrialized logic of standardization that lets us, in the darkness of this pandemic, Google a recipe for banana bread and take it from concept to kitchen table to Instagram.

Armed with an “entirely original and most intelligible system” of culinary instruction, Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management set out to enlist what Acton called “the Young Housekeepers of England” in the work of nurturing a healthy national body. Building on what Nicola Humble describes as Acton’s “rationalist innovations” (11) of structure, Beeton pruned the traditional paragraph-style recipe into concise steps meant to “put cookery on a logical, scientific basis” (10). Crucially, the new format reworked cooking instructions into what Humble calls “bite-sized nuggets,” ensuring that even the most inexperienced “Young Housekeeper” could digest the information and successfully replicate the described process (9).

Consider, for example, this snippet from a bread recipe first written by Acton and reproduced by Beeton for Book of Household Management:

While Glasse wove numbers throughout her instructions, compressing all in a single block, here we encounter three distinct sets of information: “Ingredients,” “Mode,” and “Time.” Ingredients are listed not first by name but exact quantity. Punctuated with precise numbers, the instructions neatly sequence the baking process into discrete steps. And Beeton closes out her recipe not with one baking time, as did Glasse (“three hours will just bake it”), but with a snapshot of our future actions, mapped into stages structured by time: Stage one: an hour; Stage two: three-quarters of an hour; Stage three, an hour to ninety minutes.

Acton and Beeton, in other words, deliberately rebuilt the narrative architecture of the recipe into an algorithm—one designed to plot women’s experience of cooking with mathematical precision; to impose boundaries around unfamiliar and perhaps unstable landscapes of flour, milk, and yeast. But, Beeton cautions, a positive outcome depends entirely on our willingness to trust her process: “It will be seen, by reference to the following Recipes, that an entirely original and most intelligible system has been pursued in explaining the preparation of each dish. We would recommend the young housekeeper [or] cook to follow precisely the order in which the recipes are given” (75).

And what are we longing for, trapped in this disorderly Covid time, but a trustworthy set of steps “to follow precisely”? Decisive words to help us make sense of the senseless? Numbers that signify not loss but life-giving sustenance?

“To Make Good Home-Made Bread”; the very title offers relief (839). Not just relief in the knowledge that we can, after all, perhaps solve at least one of our problems—how to make perishable items like bread at home and thus avoid the risks of frequent grocery shopping. But relief in words that tell us, unequivocally, that here, in our own kitchens, is something certain and good we can do in the face of a national trauma; that here is a formula designed to help us redeem these next few minutes, these anxious hours, this baggy Saturday morning at home. All we have to do is start. Step 1: “Put the flour into a large earthenware bowl or deep pan.” And once we’ve put the flour in the bowl, there’s no floundering to decide what to tackle next. Instead, the sequential structure of the algorithm delivers a clear, easy-to-follow mandate in each new line: “[T]hen, with a strong metal or wooden spoon, hollow out the middle.” With each sentence we check off, we are not simply helpless in the face of national disease and despair. We are not aimlessly suspended in Covid-time, a modern-day Miss Havisham. Instead, individually and collectively, we are baking bread.

Order. Predictability. Replication. These are the values of the modern industrialized society we inherited from the Victorians, and they are the values Acton and Beeton baked into the grammatical structure of the modern recipe. And so, as we work through the prosaic formula laid out in our banana bread recipes, however recently written, it is these women who transmute for us, as they did for thousands of Victorian women, the ordinary actions of our solitary life at home into a powerful expression of collective preservation. And it is these women whose recipes—a genre long considered trivial, female, lowbrow—fold us, however briefly, into a world we desperately long for. A pre-Covid world where time, like recipe time, is measurable, organized, and linear. A world when we planned out our days like recipes, scripting them into predictable steps designed around a specific vision of the future. Yet, like a recipe, which ultimately exists not only to be finished but also to be remade, our steps are cyclical. We repeat them again and again, creating rituals and routines that structure the day, the week, the month, the year. And then came Covid-19.


At the heart of a recipe—literally at its very linguistic root—lies a boldly optimistic sensibility. Derived from the Latin action verb recipere, “recipe” means “take.” Grammatically composed in the present tense, the imperative seems to address us only now, in this present moment. Yet, as Kyla Tompkins writes in her meditation on the recipe, the “eternal present tense” of the recipe’s imperative in fact “evokes a temporality in which the past imagines the future” (439). In the words of the recipe, that is, lie not just a command that we take action at this moment, but that we share its narrative vision of a fuller future. Take courage, Acton and Beeton tell us, the Young Housekeepers of the Covid-19 era. You will make bread again.

Step 1: “Put the flour into a large earthenware bowl or deep pan.”

Dr. Bonnie Shishko is Assistant Professor of English at Queens University of Charlotte. Her research and teaching focus on the history of women’s domestic writing, especially the Victorian cookbook and the contemporary food novel. Her work on the recipe and its transformation into a mode of art criticism in the late-Victorian era is forthcoming in the edited collection Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press, Spring 2021). Although she has not yet grown her own yeast during the pandemic, she has made this rhubarb-cardamom cake, and can attest that it helps stave off the Miss Havisham quarantine blues.

Notes & references

[1] Caroline Lieffers has studied the gradual infiltration of quantification into the culinary recipe throughout the nineteenth century. See esp. pp. 939-940.

[2] For more on Beeton and Acton’s cultural significance and textual innovations, see Nicola Humble, esp. pp. 7-12, Margaret Beetham, esp. pp. 18-21, and Lieffers pp. 940-942.

[3] “Popular Cookery.” The Times [London, England], Monday, May 12, 1873; p. 9. For more on the influence of science on nineteenth-century culinary instruction, see Lieffers. Margaret Beetham gives a helpful account of the growth and diversity of culinary instruction in the nineteenth-century in relation to the general rise in literacy and the expansion of the press. See esp. pp. 16-21.

Works Cited

Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery, for Private Families. London, Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1851.

Beeton, Isabella. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Nicola Humble, ed. Oxford, Oxford UP, 2000.

Beetham, Margaret. “Of Recipe Books and Reading in the Nineteenth Century: Mrs Beeton and her Cultural Consequences,” The Recipe Reader: Narratives Contexts, Traditions, Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, eds. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy Prospect Books, 2010.  

Humble, Nicola. Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food. London, Faber and Faber Ltd., 2005.

Lieffers, Caroline. “The Present Time is Eminently Scientific’: The Science of Cookery in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Journal of Social History, 45:2 (2012), pp. 936-59;

Tomkins, Kyla. “Consider the Recipe.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, 1.2 Fall 2013, pp. 439-45.

Unknown. “Wanted, a Plain Cook,” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, London, c.1860.  

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