REVIEW: The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

In brief: Eliza wants to be a poet but her publisher tells her to write a cookbook instead. She’s never cooked, but discovers a talent with her assistant Ann.

The good: Very interesting look at cooking – and who does it – in 1800s England.

The not-so-good: Wasn’t a great deal of conflict or a grand finale.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting, thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC.

Year: 2022

Pages: 399

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Setting: England

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Language of Food takes a real-life historical figure in Eliza Acton and fictionalises her story of creating a cookbook. You may think that is nothing out of the ordinary, but in 1830s London, it was a big deal. Cookbooks were few and far between, and rarely gave set quantities or even a list of ingredients. (No wonder that the cooking was done by only a few women, and fancy French chefs). Eliza hadn’t even cooked before beginning work on her cookbook – as a lady, it wasn’t the done thing to go to the kitchens. But Eliza’s family has come upon hard times, and even though she dreams of have more of her poetry published, she’s realistic. So she sets up in her family’s boarding house where she will do all the cooking with the aid of her maid and assistant Ann Kirby.

Ann is new to being a servant and mourning the forced separation of her own family. But with Eliza, her senses come alive, tasting new flavours and learning how to perfect a range of dishes. Soon Ann’s skills rival Eliza’s, but the pair get along very well. During their time testing and refining recipes, there are various events, both big and small affecting their lives. Ann finds out the truth about her family, while Eliza is pressured to marry to save the family fortunes. Overall, it’s a gentle novel without huge conflicts or drama, just two women making their way through life as best they can. Perhaps some more drama would have made the story the edge of your seat material, but you can’t really fake history when the characters are real people too.

The story is easy to read, told in alternate first-person chapters between Eliza and Ann. Their differences but more so their similarities are highlighted as the story goes on. They are both smart women, whom society will not allow to reach to their full potential. Labelled as a spinster, or poor, or mad, it is near impossible for them to make their presence known. Luckily, they both love cooking and even though Ann is not mentioned in Eliza’s eventual cookbook, their legacy lies on the page, right down to the recipe format we know today. It’s a well-researched novel that is both informative about history and entertaining too.

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