Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A la mode Mrs De Salis

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I love browsing in second-hand bookshops and the Internet has greatly added to that enjoyment through http://www.abebooks.com/ where I can go on a real treasure-hunt amongst the thousands of second-hand bookshops worldwide listed on that site. I've unearthed some real finds on abebooks, everything from gorgeous old fairytale books to books about Australia to some fantastic old cookery books, many discovered by sheer serendipity and keywords on abebooks' Advanced Search button.

That's how I discovered Harriet Anne de Salis(1829-1908), or Mrs de Salis as she signed herself. (Salis was her married name; born Harriet Bainbridge, she had married William Salis at the age of 43 and added the noble 'de' no doubt to look good on the titles of her books!) In the late 19th and early 20th century Mrs de Salis was an enormously best-selling author of very popular cookbooks all having 'A la mode' in the title: in this case meaning 'fashionable' or 'modern' rather than 'in the style of'. Her first book, Savouries A la Mode', was published in 1886 and was a big hit, going through many editions, and she soon followed it up with many more titles, such as Entrees a la Mode, Sweet and Supper Dishes a la Mode, Dressed Vegetables a la Mode, Cakes and Confections a la Mode, Oysters a la Mode, and many more. Later she also diversified into other kinds of household tips books, such as Gardening a la Mode!

The A la Mode cookbooks were snappily presented as small hardbacks, with simple recipes(though with often expensive ingredients like lobster)and were aimed at middle-class though not upper-class households. They offer not only recipes which can be used today(though many are rather heavier and meat-rich than we tend to go for these days) but also give a fascinating glimpse into the food habits and fashions of late Victorian England, very much influenced by French cuisine and focussing on presentation as well as taste. They are a fantastic resource for food historians and for writers creating historical fiction, both in books and screenplays(I love to include description of food in my books, for instance). And they have a brisk, unpretentious and pleasant atmosphere which explain some of the success of the books, for readers must have felt Mrs de Salis wasn't some snobby pontificator but one of them, understanding their desire to produce fashionable food for dinner parties whilst not torturing them with food science or jawbreakingly difficult recipes.

Mrs de Salis also wrote other food books, including one on the history and art of cookery through the ages, and a good many newspaper columns, but it is these which made her name and her fortune and which I've very much enjoyed collecting and browsing through. In the next post, I'll be offering readers a chance to win one of these cookbooks, the 1890 edition of 'Entrees a la Mode.'

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