26 September 2023

The Language of Food

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Annabel Abbs, Simon & Schuster, $32.99.

The Language of Food is more than a lavish banquet – in a book – where verses satiate, sustain and gratify. You feel as if you’re at a dining table partaking of a delectable meal. Not only that, the visual imagery is evocative, almost poesy. Now, that’s fine art!

What’s astonishing is that this is a work of fiction by Annabel Abbs, based on a handful of known facts about the life of the poet and pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton, and her assistant, Ann Kirby. Between 1835 and 1845, they lived in Tonbridge, Kent, and worked on a cookery book that has become known as the “greatest British cookbook of all time.”

Told in alternate voices, Abbs surpasses all expectations and embeds herself in telling a thought-provoking and page-turning historical novel. Laced through is the exploration of the enduring struggle for female freedom, the power of female friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food.

While Eliza Acton is brought out of the archives and into the public eye, what’s even more amazing is how the recipes leap to life from the page. The vivid descriptions appeal to the senses and create sumptuous imaginings beyond words!

The feeling is exuberant as Ann reads the colossal tome titled Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. As she turns the pages “they crackle, crumple and words flicker and spin” before her eyes: “crimped salmon with caper sauce, knuckle of veal with rice, tartar mustard, turnips in white sauce, gooseberry pudding.”

There’s something familiar here. “I read on, tasting each dish upon my tongue: sweet slippery leeks, new-born peas swirled in butter, meringue as fresh and light as snow … The air in the kitchen at Bordyke House is smoke-thick with roasting pigeons, frying onions, softly stewing plums …”

The story of Eliza and Ann is a fascinating tale of class-defying friendship that’s enriching and truly instigating. They share a determinable bond for food, feelings of hindrance and aloneness, and adroitly learn to balance tastes, textures and unknown seasonings.

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