The cook’s oracle

In December 1826, Douce wrote to his friend George Cumberland:

 If you will write a book of cockery for your Bristoldians & other gormandizers, you will get as rich as Dr Kitchener, who told me that he has sold 20,000 of his “Cook’s Oracle” & out of each copy pockets 1/6d.

Douce was referring to the ‘epicure and writer’ William Kitchiner (1778-1827), whose cookery book went through many editions and, according to the DNB, ‘demonstrated Kitchiner’s familiarity with the entire process, from shopping, through preparing and serving the dishes, to cleaning up’:

Anonymous, The vegetable woman, c. 1815-30, wood engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Douce owned not only the Cook’s Oracle, but also the rest of Kitchiner’s oeuvre, including his Peptic precepts (1821) and The pleasure of making a will (1822):

Hannah More’s The Cottage Cook, or Mrs Jones’s Cheap Dishes (c. 1815), Robert May’s The Accomplish’d Cook, or the art and mystery of cookery (1665), The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675), and Thomas Dawson’s The good huswifes Iewell, deuises for conceites in cookery (1596) were other works on the same subject that could be found in Douce’s library:

Douce’s portfolios also contained prints on ‘Cooking, brewing, baking, etc’. These include a diagram explaining The method of cutting up an Ox used by the London Butchers, which, according to Douce’s annotation, “was done for Sir Joseph Banks from the famous Lincolnshire Ox”:

Anonymous, The method of cutting up an Ox, c. 1792, etching and stipple (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Coincidentally, the chef to Sir Joseph Banks was also responsible for the meals served at the weekly meetings of the ‘committee of taste’ hosted by Kitchiner at his home in Warren Street. In the same folder where Sir Joseph’s ox is kept, we find this sixteenth-century kitchen with which Antonio Tempesta represented January in his series The Months:

Antonio Tempesta, Gennaro, 1599, etching (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

To the plucking and roasting in Tempesta’s kitchen, other cooking-related activities such as skinning and grinding are added in the print below, which reproduces the left-hand side of Jacopo Bassano’s The Rich Man and Lazarus:

After Jacopo Bassano, The Rich Man and Lazarus, 17th century, etching (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

As you can see, some verses in praise of the kitchen “to which the four elements bow” are inscribed below the image. They explain how water provides the cook with the fresh fish lying in the foreground, while both the vegetables scattered on the floor and the poor hare skinned on a table on the right were once nurtured by the earth. Air and fire are alluded to by the poultry that is being roasted in the background. A very similar idea underlies this early nineteenth-century kitchen scene which, like The vegetable woman above, was probably produced as an illustration to a children’s book:

Anonymous, The cook, c. 1815-30, wood engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

This entry was posted in Books, Cookery, Everyday life, Feast, Literature, Networks, Physicians, Wood-engravings. Bookmark the permalink.