Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Birthday Sisters

Caryna Camerino

Isabella Beeton

A few events coincided that got me thinking about me and my place in the culinary world. I was speaking with Mentor Steve, plotting my short and long term goals for Caryna's Cakes. Not long after I was studying for a college exam in Gastronomy 101 – a subject so boring that I transformed from my usual nerdy keener self, into one of those students that skips class. I became a skiver. So unoriginal! And I'm not even sorry. I couldn't help it... My natural instinct to sit towards the front of the class to “facilitate maximum learning” (I'm quoting myself here. Mainly to illustrate the nerdy keener bit I wrote earlier) were overridden by survival instinct; if I sat through one more lecture on how primitive man ate turtles I would surely inflict a fatal injury upon myself with my highlighter. I couldn't see how this class was at all relevant to learning how to run a successful bakery business. It wasn't until I was doing my own research on culinary history that I came across biographies of some characters so inspiring that it got me thinking: As an artisan baker, what kind of impact do I want to have on the world?

My 30th birthday is looming. I don't mind. I actually like getting older. I probably have something to prove because younger sister Nadya was always taller and people used to mistake me for the little sister. I also got ID'd this week while buying a bottle of Bailey's at Aldi. The older I get, the prouder I am to show that Drivers' License. So, as every year, on March 12th I will be joyfully celebrating my and Liza Minelli's birthday. But all this time I had no idea that I shared a birthday with another fabulous woman: the ever-relevant Mrs. Beeton.

Isabella Beeton was born of the 12th March 1836, 145 years before me. And if I can accomplish a fraction of what she did in her lifetime, I would be a happy bunny. Perhaps our lives as birthday sisters aren't so different. Let's compare:

  • Isabella Beeton was born in London. I was also born in a Commonwealth country, and we are both the oldest (her biography didn't specify if her siblings turned out taller...). Although, I am the oldest of 3 and Isabella is the oldest of 18. That's not a typo.
  • Isabella was a pianist. I too was a pianist, however I was a pretty crappy pianist. I hid an ace bandage in my piano bag that I put on while walking to Mrs. Hector's piano lessons around the corner so I wouldn't have to play with my left hand.
  • She married Samuel Beeton at the age of 20. I haven't been married. But that's okay, I'll give her that one. At least I didn't marry a man who gave me syphilis. Snap.
  • Isabella teamed up with her publisher husband to write articles for such magazines as The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine: an Illustrated Journal combing Practical Information, Instruction & Amusement. An astrologer once told me that I would collaborate with my future husband. Results of this are still unknown, but possible. The astrologer was very convincing.
  • At the age of 24, Isabella published her timeless tome The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort, edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton. I also write very long sentences. Her book sold more than 2 million copies by 1968. It was 1,112 pages long, containing over 900 recipes. This was the first book that listed ingredients at the start of a recipe and the format has been in use ever since. When it was re-issued in March 2000, it sold out in London bookshops. I comparatively wrote a very good essay on nuts. I wrote another one on soy. I'm still waiting for a call back from Harper Collins on that one...
  • Isabella believes that a way to a man's heart is through his stomach. In her own words, as written in the forward of her book:
    What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways. Men are now so well served out of doors -- at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining-houses -- that, in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home. 
    I once baked a batch of brownies for a boy one handed with the other arm in a sling the day after a Vespa accident. It's not that I'm anti-feminist. The door is open for reciprocity. If you feed me I am more likely to love you.

It's not so much what she wrote. I am more impressed with how she wrote it. Isabella Beeton had an ability to see English life objectively so that she could identify and provide for what was missing. She filled the gap with a reassuring text that was like a domestic encyclopaedia, relevant to everyone, containing everything from how to spot a fever to recipes for cream cheese. And what she wrote is still relevant.

Julia Child gave us french cooking, Nigella Lawson gave us food pornography (and a cookbook entitled “How to be a Domestic Goddess”. Doesn't sound so original now, does it?) These women are talented, business savvy and intelligent. But they are not trailblazers. Isabella Beeton is. Especially for a woman of her time.

Here's what she has to say on eggs:

The eggs of different birds vary much in size and colour. Those of the ostrich are the largest: one laid in the menagerie in Paris weighed 2 lbs. 14 oz., held a pint, and was six inches deep: this is about the usual size of those brought from Africa. Travellers describe ostrich eggs as of an agreeable taste: they keep longer than hen's eggs. Drinking-cups are often made of the shell, which is very strong. The eggs of the turkey are almost as mild as those of the hen; the egg of the goose is large, but well-tasted. Duck's eggs have a rich flavour; the albumen is slightly transparent, or bluish, when set or coagulated by boiling, which requires less time than hen's eggs. Guinea-fowl eggs are smaller and more delicate than those of the hen. Eggs of wild fowl are generally coloured, often spotted; and the taste generally partakes somewhat of the flavour of the bird they belong to. Those of land birds that are eaten, as the plover, lapwing, ruff, &c., are in general much esteemed; but those of sea-fowl have, more or less, a strong fishy taste. The eggs of the turtle are very numerous: they consist of yolk only, without shell, and are delicious.

Suddenly turtles seem so much more interesting.

Sadly, Isabella Beeton died at the age of 28. I have a few weeks left at 29 and although I cannot possibly say that I will start where she left off, I can certainly say that I am inspired.


  1. Very amusing. You and Aliki have a lot in common....eating...and writing. Maybe there's a collaboration there...perhaps a cookbook?

  2. I would love that. I suspect we would be especially good at research and development. Macarons in Paris, opera cake in Germany...

  3. If anyone can make a difference in the culinary world it's you. Just follow your dream and don't give up !

  4. Very interesting you guys have the same b day but you are way better looking then her Caryna ! :)