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OP: Mrs. Ellis’s Complete Cook, or Perfect Instructor

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by Mrs. [Sara] Ellis

American Sarah Ellis (1799-1872) was one of the 19th century’s most prolific writers of books intended specifically for women. Among her nearly three dozen titles, ranging from history, fiction, and essays on social issues to household manuals, are a handful devoted to cooking, of which her Complete Cook, 1867, was surely the best known.

Even here, her bent toward questions of a woman’s place in modern society, while unquestionably traditional, were couched in language intended to make her readers sit up and take notice. Early in the book, she asserts that “home is the especial province of woman, and it should be her delight to feel that she has the power of administering to the wants and pleasures of her circle. There may be occupations more congenial to her taste than the management of a household, but if she systematizes her time and comprehends what she is about, she may almost always find leisure to gratify herself as well as others.” Then, with no further words wasted, she plunges right in to the subject of carving.

From there it is straight on to fish, to “butcher’s meat,” to game, to vegetables, and on, all the way to pastries and other sweets. It concludes, as do most books of this era, with a torrent of household hints—cleaning shawls, preventing crust on tea kettles, dealing with ear aches, tainted butter, and bedbugs.

The recipes are, of course, old-style, with no ingredient lists and providing information and instruction in good, clean prose. “Lamb,” we are told, “is a delicate and commonly considered tender meat; but those who talk of tender lamb, while they are thinking of the age of the animal, commonly forget that even a chicken must be kept a proper time after it has been killed, or it will be tough picking.” A very worthwhile book; no gushing here.

The book carries an 1866 registration date but indicates 1867 on its title page. We have heard of no copies actually designated 1866, and libraries that carry the 1867 generally treat it as a first edition. The Complete Housewife appears to be the successor to an earlier Ellis book, Mrs. Ellis’s Housekeeping Made Easy (1843, reprinted 1845 and 1860). It is a Very Good copy, clean, almost crisp on the interior (a bit of edge stain), the binding rock solid. The case—brown cloth, with embossed front and back panels and a gold-stamped spine—is a little worn, with fraying at the head and foot of the spine, but better than might be expected for a 150 year old volume.

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