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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

A Greedy Woman

Pennell wrote a food column in Londons evening newspaper, The Pall Mall Gazette, for five years.

Armed with the well-honed gourmandise derived from entertaining London’s beau monde, for five years Pennell wrote her Pall Mall Gazette food columns, “The Wares of Autolycus,” from the perspective of an eater who just happened to be female. She admitted her epic ineptitude in the kitchen, but nevertheless began to utilize the vocabulary of traditional art criticism to analyze the art of cookery.

Cultural expectations of the times behooved women to eat daintily, if at all. Pennell’s admonishment that all women could eat and experience pleasure in eating proved a radical departure from the popular domestic-science imbued cookbooks on the market in the late 1800s, Mrs. Beeton’s ubiquitous Book of Household Management and Mrs. A. B. Marshall’s Cookbook. She believed that her writing served as “a guide to the Beauty, the Poetry, that exists in the perfect dish, even as in the masterpiece of a Titian or a Swinburne.”

Pennell sounds amazingly modern (if not a little bit politically incorrect).

Dinners & Dishes, by Elim Henry d’Avigdor, another writer for The Pall Mall Gazette under the pen name “The Wanderer,” provided a model for Pennell. Her readers clamored for her work, even though middle- and upper-class women rarely ventured into the kitchen, leaving cooking to various cooks and “chars” populating their households.

A precursor to 20th-century food writers M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Jane Grigson, Pennell sounds amazingly modern (if not a little politically incorrect at times) in the eccentric The Feasts of Autolycus: The Diary of a Greedy Woman. A collection of her best Pall Mall columns, was reprinted in 1923 and 2000 under the title Delights of Delicate Eating, so Pennell’s work is now increasingly available to twenty-first-century readers.

Publisher William Ernest Henley, editor of the Scots Observer (later the National Observer) from 1889 to 1893, gave Pennell her first cookbook.

Because she couldn’t wield a saucepan with ease when she started writing her food column, one of the Pennells’ friends, publisher William E. Henley, saved her by giving her a copy of Alexander Dumas’s Dictionnaire de la Cuisine.

With the acquisition of Dumas’s book, Pennell marveled, “It was with something of a shock that I woke one morning and found myself a collector of cookery books.” And when she passed up a new dress for a rare first edition of “good old Hannah Glasse,” she knew she was a serious collector

At one point, Pennell owned over 1,000 rare cookbooks. Her glee over the range of her collection comes out in her extended bibliographical essay, My Cookery Books (1903):

If it be a mistake to collect, at least I have collected so well that I have yet to find the collection of cookery books that can equal mine. It may be put to shame when I consult M. Georges Vicaire’s Bibliographie Gastronomique (1890), with its twenty-five hundred entries, especially as M. Vicaire’s knowledge of the English books on the subjects is incomplete, and his ignorance of the American exhaustive,—and he has never heard of Miss Leslie, poor man.

Pennell owned a copy, published in 1498, of De Re Culinaria, by the third century Roman gastronome who called himself Apicius. It is thought to have been the first cookbook in the Western world.

In Whistler the Friend (1930), written after Joseph Pennell’s death in 1926, she muses on what it is that drives collectors of every stripe:

Half the fun of collecting is in picking up the rare prize that turns one’s fellow collector green with envy. I have enjoyed my moments of triumph. My first was as a collector of cook books when—with the help of a catalogue—I found an Apicius Coelius, of the right date [1498, extremely rare], in the old vellum covers, and I began to boast of my incanabula [sic], though my Apicius in wartime fell victim to damp in a London warehouse where it was stored for safe keeping.

Joseph Pennell working at a printing press, 1922. Photo by William Shewell Ellis. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

At the end of their lives, the Pennells bequeathed over 433 cookbooks and other materials to the Library of Congress. The cookbooks form part of the Library’s rare book and special collections holdings and range chronologically from Schola Apiciana, Polyonimo Syngrapheo, authore (1534) to A book of scents & dishes, collected by Dorothy Allhusen, illustrated by Elizabeth Murray (1926).

Like a fine Grand Cru wine, Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s work has aged very well indeed and she deserves a wider reading audience. For who can resists the following parting exhortation, from her chapter “Spring Chicken” in Delights of Delicate Eating?

Braise your chicken, fricassee it, make it into mince, croquettes, krameskies; eat it cold; convert into galantine; bury it in aspic; do what you will with it, so long as you do it well, it can bring you but peace and happiness.

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, greedy? Yes, for cookbooks. And for life itself.

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Cynthia D. Bertelsen lived and worked in numerous developing countries for over 15 years. She holds advanced degrees in History, Human Nutrition and Foods, and Library Science, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She belongs to the Southern Foodways Alliance, Culinary Historians of Washington DC, Culinary Historians of New York, Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, and the Peacock-Harper Culinary History group (Chair 2007-2008, Co-Chair 2006-2007, newsletter editor 2005-2007). An avid cookbook collector, she writes a culinary history blog, “Gherkins & Tomatoes: Food History and Culture.”