Mr Abbott: early adapter of technology

No it’s not that ‘Mr Abbott’, although the man I want to bring to your attention, Edward Abbott, was also politician. He was born in Sydney in 1801 and in 1864 he was the first Australian to produce a cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book. Cookery for the Many, as Well as for the “Upper Ten Thousand” (2014 marks the sesquicentenary of its publication). To the modern cook accustomed to culinary manuals with detailed and consistently formatted lists of ingredients, step-by-step instructions, additional information on procurement and substitution illustrated with glossy photographs all laid out in easy reading format Abbott’s ‘cookery book’ might be unrecognizable as such. He familiarly categorises his recipes under headings such as soups, roasting, made dishes, condiments, puddings and pies, bread and breakfast cakes and salads but there is no standard format to these; many are no more than a list of ingredients, method is often non-existent and measurements absent. This lack of detail was quite standard in nineteenth century cookery manuals; a practice considered to indicate a presumption on behalf of the writer that the cook employing the book had some understanding of the dish and the processes required to produce it.

In addition to the recipe chapters Abbott has included sections on an extraordinary range of topics related to cookery and dining, for example, “Dinner According the Count D’Orsay’ (a notoriously profligate English aristocrat), ‘Dinner Party Precedence’, ‘Magical Drinks’, ‘Ice’, ‘Soy’ (yes in 1864), “Why Animals To Be Eaten Must Be Killed’, ‘Orange Flower Water’, Convivial Maxims’, ‘Chocolate’, Mosses (not just a recent ‘super food’ discovery), ‘Smoking’, Al Fresco Parties’, Copper Saucepans and the type of fish to be found in various of the colonies. Indeed the contemporary cook or gastronome might be surprised at the breadth of interest in food and cookery demonstrated by Abbott given the persistent stereotype of colonial Australians as a people who ‘grubbed’ on little more than ‘mutton and damper’ and did not care about food. Interwoven with the recipes are advice, principles, a stanza of poetry, dramatic lines and maxims drawn from popular and highbrow newspapers, books and journals, authors, poets, commentators including Shakespeare, Byron, Edmund Burke, Descartes, Thackeray and Tennyson (see example below). Sometimes these snippets relate to the dish or food types under discussion but the inclusion of others seems random though I believe that Abbott would have had a rationale as to where he placed these ‘appropriate quotations and racy extracts’. You can see an example of a typical page below:

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The eclectic nature of the material in Abbott’s book has led it to be described as a ‘gastronomic miscellany’[1] and its scrapbook style is what I wanted to draw attention to for it represents a ‘technology’ of his time and the process through which stories went ‘viral’ before the internet[2]. Prior to his entering the Tasmanian parliament as the member for Clarence, Abbott founded a newspaper, the Hobart Town Advertiser, and acted as editor and publisher. It was common practice for newspaper editors to cut out interesting items from other publications and place them in their own or file these away for inclusion when they needed to fill space. Abbott would have applied this practice during the time he produced the Advertiser and seems to have applied it to compiling his book (given the dates on some of the items he uses it seems likely he had been collecting material for quite some time). In was in this way that items would go ‘viral’, as they were cut from one paper and appeared in others. It was a slow process and an item might appear over several years in different papers as it made its way into print across the globe. This process is exampled on the title page of Abbott’s book where he ascribed authorship of it psudenomously to an ‘Australian Aristologist’ (it does not appear to have been a secret as to who the author was though), a term he took from an article on gastronomy by Thomas Walker that appeared in a London magazine in 1835 and was re-cast in publications so often that it still had currency thirty years later when Abbott referenced it.

Reconsidered in this light Abbott’s work can be seen to be not unlike the ‘scrapbooks’ of ideas, re-tweets, likes, links and photographs that we so avidly post on various internet sites. If he were alive today I reckon Edward Abbott would be posting on every available medium.

If you are not familiar with Abbott’s book you can take a look at a digital copy here.

[1] See entry on Abbott in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abbott-edward-12762

[2] Visit the Infectious Texts project for more on ‘going viral’ in the 19th century.