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  • Susan Low

Annabel Abbs: the writer who's bringing Eliza Acton into the 21st century

"I want to put Eliza back on the stage where I think she belongs," says Annabel Abbs, author of the just-published (February 3) historical novel The Language of Food.

Eliza Acton wrote the ground-breaking Victorian cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845. Eliza's name is heralded by the food-writing cognoscenti. Among Acton’s admirers are Delia Smith, who called Acton "the best writer of recipes in the English language,“ Elizabeth David, who wrote the introduction to The Best of Eliza Acton: Recipes from her the Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1968, and Jane Grigson. Food writers such as Dr Annie Gray, and Regula Ysewijn have also paid tribute to Acton with their contemporary takes on Acton's recipes.

Modern Cookery ran to 13 editions and earned Acton a tidy sum, but despite the book’s success, Acton’s place in history was soon supplanted by another Victorian queen of the kitchen: Mrs Isabella Beeton. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management eclipsed Acton’s when it was published in 1861 – which was exceptionally galling for Acton, as Beeton is used many of Acton’s recipes in her own book without crediting them (plagiarism in the food-writing world is nothing new). Perhaps even more galling is that, outside the food-writing cognoscenti at least, Mrs Beeton’s name is now better known than Eliza Acton’s.

If Annabel Abbs has her way, of course, all of that will change. The book is being made into a television miniseries by CBS in the US by Stampede Ventures, which ought to go some way to bringing Acton to the attention of a wider audience.

I spoke to Annabel via the wonders of Zoom (read my full interview with Annabel on the ckbk site) about how she discovered Eliza and why she believes Acton ought to be better known.

"I inherited a cookery book collection, which I still have, from my mother-in-law," she says. "She was a cookery teacher in the 1950s. Way before it was fashionable, she started collecting cookery books, and had a collection of about 200 historic books. When I was looking around for something to write about – I wanted to write about a female who had not been recognised – I started going through all the cookery books, and Eliza's book just stood out. Her prose is so good. I didn’t know much about her but when I started to research her, she sounded interesting and had a good backstory – there was the whole thing with Mrs Beeton stealing her recipes!"

Annabel Abbs, author of The Language of Food. Photograph: Guillemette Minisclou

Abbs was struck by Acton's beautiful writing – Acton was also a published poet – and for her innovative approach to writing recipes. I asked Abbs why Acton is important as a food writer. "For her pioneering role in food-writing, for her beautiful prose – she really is the first one to bring poetry to her recipe-writing – and for the invention of the recipe. She is the first person to list the ingredients and the measurements separately from the method. She puts them at the end of the recipe – and all fairness to Isabella Beeton: she recognises that actually a better place would be to have them at the beginning! And that is her innovation."

The Language of Food intertwines fiction and fact, and gives readers a thoroughly modern perspective on a woman who was a pioneer in her chosen field. Acton was an advocate for better-quality food at a time when food adulteration was rife; like many a current food writer she couldn't abide food waste; and she wanted to share the joy and creativity of cooking.

Acton ought to be better known for her many accomplishments. I for one am hoping that Abbs does manage to put Acton back on the world stage – where she belongs.

The Language of Food, published by Simon and Schuster, is out now.

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