Guest Essay
Jane Austen's Regency World|89 - September/October 2017

The meals that Jane Austen and her family would have enjoyed have been recreated in a splendid new book, dining with Jane Austen, as Julienne Gehrer explains

 

Jane Austen

One way to get to know people is to sit down and share a meal with them. If we could dine with Jane Austen, we would discover a woman passionate about many things, especially food. “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she wrote on June 15, 1808. Several writers have tried to whet our appetites with foods conjured up from Austen’s novels, such as Mrs Elton’s Rout Cakes or the dinner that Mrs Bennet might have served Mr Darcy. But why settle for fictitious dishes when you can feast on the reality of foods prepared from the author’s own family cookbooks?

Dining with Jane Austen gives readers much the same dining experiences as the author. Jane’s familiar Haricot Mutton, Orange Wine, Bath Buns, White Soup, and many other foods have been recreated using two manuscript cookbooks from the Austen family circle. By understanding and making these foods, readers can enjoy a certain level of intimacy with the author – much like that of sharing a meal with family and close friends.

Many times the tone of Jane Austen’s letters echoes that of a modern-day foodie. In her own words, she “devours” some cold souse, is fond of “having an ox-cheek now and then” and implores Cassandra with: “I long to know something of the Mead.” This is a woman who credits apple pies with “a considerable part of our domestic happiness”. When she enjoys a brief respite from her final illness, Jane seizes the opportunity to write to a friend and request the recipe for “some excellent orange Wine”.

When the idea came to connect these references to the author’s family recipes, the temptation to write Dining with Jane Austen was all consuming. The three-year research project began with cataloguing Jane’s references to food and dining – a task greatly assisted by Deirdre Le Faye’s well-annotated collection of the author’s letters. Capturing the data on a spreadsheet enabled efficient sorting by category (pork, dairy, poultry) or searching by specific word (ice, souse, turkey). Over time, the random references seemed to cluster into food stories such as

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