21 February 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 1

What follows is my English translation of the opening pages of a little 19th-century cookbook for French schoolgirls, which I found in a cupboard here at Beynes.

The most charming portions of the book are the entries in “Madeleine’s Journal,” in which our heroine, who appears to be about ten or twelve in the illustrations, overcomes her very 21st-century objections to cooking (it’s messy! it’s tedious!), and learns to be a model 19th-century housewife — with all that entails. Several of the recipes and helpful hints work in modern kitchens, too; I’ve tried.

If you like this apéritif, let me know, and I’ll translate a few more chapters.


Precepts — Madeleine’s Journal
— Summaries —
Recipes and Cooking Terms

For Use in Girls’ Schools

By L. Ch.-Desmaisons

Fourth Edition

Paris, 1897

Chapter 1

Our Food

1. The most important and the sweetest task of the good mother is to make others love her household.

2. One of the best methods to do so is to cook well, that is, to prepare food that is healthy, varied, sufficient and pleasant.

3. Our food is healthy when it is composed of fresh ingredients and of good quality; it is unhealthy when it is composed of meat or vegetables that are not quite fresh or even spoiled. In the latter case, it is dangerous to the health.

4. Our food should be varied, since man by nature eats meat, vegetables, herbs, fruits; our health is much better when we accustom ourselves at an early age to eat what’s served to us.

5. The mistress of the household, the mother of the family who does not know how to vary the food of those for whom she prepares the meals, spoils their appetite, harms their health, and often spends much more than she should.

6. Our food should be well-prepared, and for that all women must learn to cook.

To know how to cook well is to know how to prepare every dish economically and pleasantly.

Not to know how to cook is to waste that which could be good, to displease our husband and our family, and to drive them from the household. [NOTE: An asterisk refers us to the Lexicon at the back of the book, where we learn that “waste” (gâcher) means to make something flavorless or carelessly, or to squander the ingredients.]

7. A young girl who pays attention, having the will and a good disposition, will always find pleasure in learning to cook well.

This illustration is from another book, which I gather was designed
to teach Mexican girls to cook more like French girls.
¡Au lait!


I go marketing.

This morning, Maman called me and said to me:

“Madeleine, you have left school now, you have your certificate of studies and now you are doing housework. Will it please you to help me cook, clean the house, and do the laundry?”

I blushed a bit and I felt a momentary embarrassment. Since (I can admit it here) what I dislike more than anything in the world is cooking. I don’t understand anything about it, cooking doesn’t interest me. I think it must be really unpleasant to touch things all the time that get your hands and apron dirty, and that have a strong odor. However, I answered Maman:

“Since it is necessary, dear Maman, I must get started.”

“Good!” Maman said. “You are a good little girl; I see however that you only half-like to cook and that you don’t really dare to say so. But no matter, I know you are docile and attentive; I also know that you love me and that you’ll do anything to please me…”

“Oh, yes, dear Maman,” I cried, throwing my arms about her neck. “I will do whatever you want in order to please you.”

“Well then, my dear, you will begin right away. You will take the basket that you see hanging there and you will come with me to the market.”

As it was said, so it was done, and I left with Maman.

Along the way, I thought:

“We’re off to a good start. Going to the market, and especially with Maman, isn’t boring at all, and if it’s to be like this every day, I’ll be quite happy.”

Then I said aloud:

“Maman, don’t you get bored going to the market every day? And wouldn’t it be more convenient to go just once or twice a week? We could do all our shopping at once, keep supplies on hand for those days when we don’t want to go out, and ….”

“Ah! Certainly not,” Maman said. “I will never do anything so foolish.”

“Foolish…? Why?”

The Marché Central in Royan, the 20th-century market
where Henri Boutrit taught me 19th-century rules,
much like those that Madeleine’s mother imparts.

“Well, because that would condemn us to eating fresh food only once or twice a week. How, in the summertime, could we keep meat for twenty-four hours without its spoiling? How could we preserve the flavor of vegetables, if we leave them too long in the kitchen? And fish? And fresh butter? And fruits? All of that must be bought from day to day, to be pleasant and healthy.

“You see also that, in doing my shopping every morning, I can often find what we call a real bargain, of which I take advantage. Today, for example, there are many fish: I am buying fish because it is not expensive. Tomorrow, when the farmers’ wives come, they’ll bring vegetables in great quantity, and I’ll be able to choose: I will buy some and I won’t pay dearly. Because vegetables, fruits, and fish vary in price, according to the season and even according to the day.”

I understood immediately that Maman was right, and as we were arriving at the market, I found myself distracted by other ideas.

We did our marketing, or rather Maman did it all by herself, for I was too timid and too much a novice to dare to say anything. However, in coming home, I found that the basket was quite heavy, and I said to Maman:

“Didn’t you buy too many things?”

Maman began to laugh:

“Too many things! You’ll see how much is left tomorrow. We all have a good appetite at home and there are five of us: your father, you, your sister Juliette, your little brother and I. Even though our ages are different, the same food suits us all, since I take care to prepare only simple dishes, which every stomach can accommodate. This morning we will eat oeufs à la coque and a beefsteak. This evening we will make a cabbage soup in which we will stew some ham, which we will eat afterward. With that and some potatoes in gravy, we will dine very well.”

“Well, if I were the mistress of the household, I would make many small dishes [or appetizers], because that is much more fun to eat.”

“Oh, no!” said Maman. “That would be more expensive. Think for a moment of the seasoning for each dish, of what the finest ingredients would cost, and in olden days, of how much coal you would use. At home, soup and one or two very simple, well-prepared dishes are sufficient. Your father works a great deal, your sister, your brother and you yourself are growing, you are developing, you need solid and nourishing dishes to sustain yourselves and to comfort you, one and all. Ah! If you were sickly or delicate, if old folks lived with us, your poor grandmother for example, whom we lost last year, things would be different.”

“Why, Maman?”

“Because sick people and old folks, whose digestion is slow and difficult, need food that is light and yet substantial. Neither cabbage soup, nor ham, nor potatoes would suit them. So I would buy fish, poultry, fresh eggs for them instead.”

“I understand,” I said as we reentered the house.

And, walking ahead of my mother, I entered the kitchen brightly, for I was eager to set down my basket, which had made my arm stiff. But deep down, how happy I was to have taken the burden upon myself, and thus to have relieved Maman!


1. I will buy each morning the provisions for the day, in order to have the freshest items.

2. I will spare no effort to procure good ingredients, at low prices.

3. For old folks and sick people, I will buy fortifying and light food.

4. I will put all my heart into sharing my mother’s burdens.

Except where noted, photographs are of the kitchen, scullery, and servants’ hall of the Nissim de Camondo mansion, Paris. From the website of the Musée Nissim de Camondo, where you can learn more about this beautiful home, its art and furnishings, and the profound sorrows visited on the family who built it. It’s one of my favorite spots in France. Young Madeleine’s kitchen was assuredly much smaller and not so well-equipped!

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