Let's Eat

Miss Tattersall's guide for the Jewish cooks of 1895

A 125-year old cook book found when the JC moved office gives an insight into the lives of British Jews in Victorian times


The pages are yellowed and tattered, the cover long gone. It’s held together by loose threads and ancient Sellotape, wrapped in a disintegrating brown paper bag. And, like all old cookery books, you can tell the owner’s favourite recipe by the stains on a particular page. In this case, the winner was fried fish and potatoes.

This book was found in a dusty corner when the JC moved offices recently. Dated 1895, its title page announces it as a “Jewish Cookery Book, compiled for use in the cookery centres under the school board for London.” The author is Miss M A S Tattersall, MCA — Gold Medallist, etc — the superintendent of cookery for the School Board for London.

It is dedicated “ by kind permission” to Mrs Hermann Adler “As a mark of respect by the author”. Mrs Adler was the wife of the Chief Rabbi of the time, and her letter of endorsement (along with her Hyde Park address) is on the following page “I have read it carefully, and am of opinion that the recipes are in full accordance with the requirements of our dietary code. I am sure the book will prove very useful to the Jewish Scholars in our Board Schools and consequently to their parents.”

So, this is a book for young Jewish cooks, but not one of Jewish recipes as such, although there is a section of Passover dishes and a chapter on koshering meat (“Liver must be cut open and washed in cold water then fried on a shovel over the fire.”) . It gives us some insight into the way secular and religious authorities worked together to assimilate Jewish children and families, without compromising religious observance, but most of all it offers a glimpse of everyday life for British Jews 125 years ago.

From the “Useful hints” of Chapter Three we can tell that life was hard (“Chloride of lime is a good preventative against rats”) sometimes in dangerous ways (“Should the chimney catch on fire, throw salt or sulphur on the fire and up the chimney….if a child’s clothes should catch fire, roll her on the floor, in a cloth if handy”). An open fire in the kitchen was clearly the norm, as the recipes prove, many assuming you’ll be cooking over a fire.

Life before the NHS meant a huge emphasis on food for and care of the sick. Dried orange peel thrown on a fire is “especially useful in a sick-room as it is less noisy than wood” .

The student cooks of 1895 were expected to be ingenious when faced with lack of suitable equipment (“If a jelly-bag is not at hand, turn a chair upside down upon another, and tie a perfectly clean cloth to the four legs.”). If you wanted to know if your eggs were fresh, you should apply your tongue to the large end. If “it feels warm, it is new laid.” Miss Tattersall was literally teaching our grandmothers to suck eggs. 

Lesson One features first, vegetable soup, made with potatoes, carrot, turnip, dripping (the English word for schmaltz) and (if liked) a teaspoon of brown sugar. Then there’s a recipe for “egg and milk for an invalid” — “A tablespoon of brandy is a great improvement”. Basic stuff.

But soon the student moves on to stewed mutton with turnips, roly-poly pudding (which “could be made with dripping instead of suet”) , broiled chops and steaks, and boiled custard. There’s a recipe to make your own baking powder and another for caramel flavouring which could last for years.

“Toast water” is made by toasting a crust of bread, pouring cold water onto it and letting it stand for half an hour, then straining into a glass. Does anyone still make this at home? It’s delicious mixed with apple water, apparently. It certainly appeals more than the raw beef tea, a few pages on, the recipe as ghastly as the name.

The oil-stained page for fried fish and potatoes suggests dipping the fish in egg and flour (not matzah meal), and the chips are cut in thin rounds, like crisps. There are more oily splodges for the Passover recipes — including sassafras, a drink made from liquorice and aniseed, pancakes (featuring “one tablespoonful of rum if liked”) and Grimslichs, a fried delicacy made from soaked matzah, matzah meal, raisins, sultanas, eggs, sugar and spice; a kind of mash up of matzah brie and kremslach which sounds delicious.

More advanced students passed on to the second course including brown stew, brown stewed fish, white stewed fish (with balls), beef olives, served with brussels sprouts. Stewed veal with forcemeat balls features ginger and parsley as flavouring, sausage (worsht) and rice (“very nice eaten with roast veal”) calls for saffron. Curry is popular and so is nutmeg.

There are recipes from Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany as well as many British specials. Our immigrant grandmothers were taught to make Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pasties, and Shrewsbury cakes as well as plum pudding , including “a little old ale” (“This must be omitted when prepared in Board School Cookery Centres”), and even a Christmas pudding, which is boiled from six to ten hours, according to size — quite a large margin for error there. Roast turkey and goose are on the menu, and so is — shudder — roast bullock’s heart.

Miss Tattersall’s book was the seventh Jewish cookery book published in the UK. The first came out in 1846; A Jewish Manual by “A Lady”, soon revealed to be Judith Montefiore, wife of Sir Moses Montefiore. A later book, Aunt Sarah’s directions for teaching economical cookery, in Jewish schools and families written by Sarah Hess in Liverpool in 1877 was used to teach many Jewish girls to cook meals and count the pennies (eight of them, for an adult’s meal) and also included directions for making and applying poultices.

Internet searches show that a better–preserved copy of Miss Tattersall’s book, still with cherry-red cover intact, would cost around £300. Our tattered version wouldn’t be worth as much. But it’s impossible to look through its fragile pages without wondering who owned it first, who carelessly left it in the office (are you still around?), and if any of the recipes have been passed down the generations and are enjoyed still.


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