book cover

Modern Cookery
by Eliza Acton

Eliza Acton (1799–1859) did not start out as a cookery writer; in fact she was a published poetess. (We have to use this word, since it was as normal in her time as “actress”.) As the story goes, her publi­sher told her that poetry didn’t sell, and why didn’t she try her hand at something more marketable, like a cookbook. Instead of telling him where he could stuff his marketability, Eliza Acton took his advice. The result was Modern Cookery, in all its Branches, Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families, first published in 1845.

Modern Cookery is believed to be the first English cookbook to show ingre­dients in a block by themselves, after the recipe’s general instructions. (Listing them before the instructions, like the Dramatis Personae of a play, came still later.) In earlier cookbooks you had to pick the ingredients out of the prose, hoping you hadn’t overlooked any—and concurrently hoping for some hint about quantities. Even “a handful” or “a pinch” is a quantity; “sufficient” or “a goodly amount” is not much help.

Fourteen years after its first appearance, Modern Cookery became one of the principal donors to Beeton’s Book of Household Management, putting Eliza Acton on the long list of Influential Writers Nobody Has Heard Of. And there she stayed, until she was rediscovered by mid-twentieth-century culinary writers.

The Author

Who was Eliza Acton? The short answer is that she was a woman who left no corre­spondence, and if she kept a diary, it has not survived. Her voice only comes out in her published writings. As far as I know, there exists only one biography, the regrettably titled (and indifferently edited) The Real Mrs. Beeton by Sheila Hardy. From this book we learn two things. First, that early in life Eliza Acton was involved in keeping at least two different schools. In her time, girls’ schools tended to be tiny—five, ten, twenty pupils—so there was a corre­spon­dingly great number of them. But the tone of Modern Cookery suggests that she had some idea how to teach. And, second, that she spent some time in Paris. What she did there, and with whom, remains unknown.

Trivia: In the Book of Household Management, Eliza Acton is always referred to as “Miss Acton”, in the same way that Florence Nightingale is “Miss Nightingale”. A century earlier, it would have been Mrs. The title went to any mature woman capable of acting on her own initiative—as, for instance, by writing a 700-page book. But by 1859, or even 1845, the only thing that mattered was a woman’s marital status. Professional cooks and house­keepers were exempt from the change in nomen­clature. But Eliza Acton wasn’t employed as a cook; she did it on her own time, and was therefore Miss.

Modern Cookery

Introduction, Contents, Index

Chapters I-VII:
Soups; Fish; Gravies; Sauces; Store Sauces; Forcemeats; Boiling, Roasting, &c.

Chapters VIII-XV:
Beef; Veal; Mutton and Lamb; Pork; Poultry; Game; Curries, Potted Meats, &c.; Vegetables

Chapters XVI-XXVIII, Appendix:
Pastry; Boiled Puddings; Baked Puddings; Souffles, Omlets, &c.; Sweet Dishes; Preserves; Pickles; Cakes; Confectionary; Dessert Dishes; Syrups, Liqueurs, &c.; Coffee, Chocolate, &c.; Bread

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Culinary Notes

If you are planning on cooking from this book—as opposed to curling up in a comfortable chair and reading it while munching on potato chips—you may want to look at the intro­ductory notes to Mrs. Beeton. Most of the culinary vocabulary is, predictably, the same. In particular, clean your pots and pans. The author repeats this directive at least a hundred times (I counted), so evidently some of you aren’t listening.

Pro tip: If you’ve got Acton and Beeton open side by side in your browser, Modern Cookery (the present book) is the one with the darker background.

Vocabulary and Ingredients

The distinction between a chili and a capsicum shows up at least twice. The first time, the choice is “four or five chilies, or a capsicumb [sic] or two”, implying that capsicums are more potent than chilis. The second time, it is “half a dozen capsicums (or a few chilies if more convenient)”, which would seem to invert the respective strengths.
coconut milk
coconut water (the liquid that you drain from the nut before opening it)
(of lobster) = roe
(plural) means crab apples except in the Fish chapter.
Dutch sauce
is now called by its French name, which you can work out for yourself.
flead, fleed
“the provincial name for the leaf, or inside fat of a pig, which makes excellent crust when fresh”
Lisbon sugar
an intermediate stage of refining, between brown and white.
pyroligneous acid
wood vinegar
the singular is the liqueur, while the plural is the pastries. The book does not give a recipe, so “ratifias” must have been something you bought rather than making your own. Often the choice is “ratifias or macaroons”.
sieve, inverted
Today flat sieves are rarely seen in home kitchens. As an alternative to draining everything on paper towels—the standard modern method—I sometimes use a splatter screen set over an empty pan.
spirit of wine
Like many mid-19th-century books, this one toggles between two meanings of “supply”: “to provide X”, and “to fill the gap created by (the absence of) X”. The Oxford English Dictionary informs me that both were first attested in 1375, so this is a battle that went on for many centuries. If one meaning doesn’t fit, try the other one.
tous les mois
One recipe suggests, as a substitution, 2½ oz. arrowroot for 1½ oz. tous les mois. Another says “it should be used in about the same proportions and in exactly the same manner” (as arrowroot).
always means veal fat. (Ruminants also don’t appear to have stomachs; the word is only used of humans.)




Some words are spelled differently in the body text than in the index; some vary at random. If you’re searching for text, note these spellings. Unless otherwise noted, the more common form is given first:

Hyphens and Word Division

A few common words occur both with and without hyphen. For the ones printed at line break I went with the majority, unless there happened to be a different form in the immediate vicinity. As above, I’ve shown the more common form first.

Diacritics and Punctuation

If you are searching for exact text, note that headings generally do not have diacritics (“accents”). So, for example, à la Crême in the body text and Index will be A LA CREME in recipe titles, while à la Française becomes A LA FRANÇAISE. (The cedilla was achieved by sneaking a lower-case ç into the SMALL CAPITALS of the rest of the header, forming an exception to the no-diacritics rule.) This may or may not matter, depending on your device. Some recipe titles, on the other hand, have dramatically oversized accents. I would not be surprised to learn that these were penciled-in by an indignant reader.

Even in the body text, the author—or her editor—was not fond of circumflex accents. Maître d’hôtel is written “Mâitre d’hotel” throughout the Sauces section, changing to “Maître d’hotel” only when we reach the meat chapters. The book never does get the hang of “hôtel”. To make up for it, a number of Index entries—Nesselrôde, Soubîse—come with wholly spurious circumflex accents.

More often than not, chapter references (“Chapter IV., and”) were printed with final . (period, full stop). But there were enough exceptions that I left them as I found them. Similarly, the form ,) with comma inside parentheses shows up just frequently enough that I didn’t regularize it to the more common ), with comma outside parentheses.


This etext is based on the 1845 first edition. A few apparent errors in spelling or punctuation were corrected if the third edition—from later in 1845—had the expected form. Blatant errors, like “on the point of boint of boiling”, were corrected regardless.

Typographical errors are marked with mouse-hover popups and are listed again at the end of each chapter. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space.