The Language of Food
Written by: Annabel Abbs
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: Jo Lucre
The Language of Food is where food and poetry intertwine. Ms Eliza Acton is 36 with secrets afoot. Mistress of a boarding house, poet at heart, rising cook, and in the year 1835, she’s considered a spinster at best. Ann Kirby is a scullery maid, soon to be 17. Green around the edges, young and free-spirited, and with secrets of her own, she has come to work for Eliza. Both are very different women bound by a life of service in their own inevitable ways.
Swept away by the nostalgia of a time gone by, Annabel Abbs expertly tells the shared story of the scullery maid who dreams of being a cook, and the other of her mistress, a self-proclaimed spinster from Suffolk who dreams of being a poet – but is told to write a cookery book instead.
Words meld together delectably with Abb’s decadent narration, where the lushness of food and its various states highlight the emotions of two very vivid characters. “My mind, which a few minutes ago was whisked to a foaming peak, goes very small and tight and still. Like a hazelnut.”
When Eliza first meets Ann she is like a breath of fresh air: “her presence has set me alight. She is such a slither of a girl. Like a thinly flaked almond. Her shoulder blades jutting like stunted wings. Her large luminous eyes lighting up from pockets of darkness, like church candles. Her boots peeling away from their soles... And yet she has a palate capable of distinguishing the subtlest of flavours.”
Through a work of fiction, Abbs has bought Eliza Acton, widely thought of as writing the first cookery book for general use, to life in a sumptuous feast of storytelling that may, in the hands of another author, have otherwise resulted in ordinary fare. I thoroughly enjoyed The Language of Food, a tale of an unlikely friendship that brews, bakes, and rests as the twists and turns of ambition get in the way.