The Life and Times (and Fractions) of Eliza Acton

November 2, 2015 at 4:56 am 1 comment

Modern Cookery - Title Page

Title Page

You may know Eliza Acton as an English poet or Victorian cookbook author, but I prefer to think of her as the Queen of MP.6.

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP6:
Attend to precision.

Her bestselling Modern Cookery for Private Families — which was first published in 1845, ran through 13 editions by 1853, remained in print until 1918, was reissued in 1968 and 1974, and then resurrected again in 1996 by Southover Press, with two more editions since — might very well be the greatest cookbook ever produced.

The prose within the volume is magnificent. She included recipes for “Poor Author’s Pudding,” “Printer’s Pudding,” and “Publisher’s Pudding,” the last of which “can’t be made too rich.” The directions for the “Publisher’s Pudding” explain that it should be covered with a “sheet of buttered writing paper,” which no doubt gives recipe readers some idea about the thickness of paper to be used, but also implies something about the publishing industry. (The complete text is available from Google Books, if you’d like to check it out for yourself.)

But what makes this work mathematically interesting is that it is the first cookbook that used precise measurements in its recipes. Without Modern Cookery, a middle school word problem might look like this:

The recipe for a loaf of bread calls for some flour, a dash of salt, and enough water to make the dough pliable. How much salt would you need to make two loaves?

I suppose the answer is “two dashes,” though printers would likely call that an em dash. (Cue cheeky, all-knowing editor’s laugh here.)

It was the recipes of Ms. Acton — like the one for a disgusting drink known as Milk Lemonade, which calls for 6 oz. sugar, ¼ pint lemon juice, ¼ pint sherry, and ¾ pint cold milk — that paved the way for the wonderful word problems that students enjoy today:

My recipe calls for ⅔ cups of white flour and 2⅕ cups of wheat flour. How much flour do I need in total for my recipe?

Oh, wait… did I say wonderful? I meant awful.

Who the hell measures flour in fifths of a cup? And why would anyone need to know the total amount of flour? Just dump it in a bowl and mix!

The word problem above without specific measurements is purely speculative; it’s almost certain that someone else would have thought to include exact measurements had Eliza Acton not come along, and students would have still been subjected to unrealistic fraction-containing word problems. But the purported imprecision within recipes is spot on, as shown by this recipe taken from an early 18th century English text:

Fill yr pott halph full of wien & [a] good share of sugar. Milke in as much cream & stirr itt once about very softly. Let itt stand two houres before you eate itt.
[from MS Codex 753, compliments of rarecooking.com]

Admittedly, that recipe is for an Ordinary Sillibub, which is basically a red wine float, and hence the recipe is very nearly useless. But it is typical of the imprecision that was commonplace before Ms. Acton’s arrival.

All hail Eliza Acton, Queen of MP.6!

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Fractional Eggs Wait, Wait… I’ve Got a Math Question

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. xander  |  November 2, 2015 at 10:24 am

    I think I need to go apologize to Ms Fanny Farmer, now. I had always blamed her for the choice of terrible units (cups? CUPS!? how many tablespoons in a cup again?! grrr!), but it seems that Ms Acton has her beat by half a century.

    Reply

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The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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