Book Review

From Paul Halsall, a review of an interesting new book:

Ruth Goodman, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal Into Victorian Homes Changed Everything (2020).

Despite the title the book really discusses the replacement of wood fires by coal fires in London in the sixteenth century, and wood cooking first by coal fires, and then by coal-fired iron ovens in the nineteenth century.

Again the focus is mostly London, where a population increase from circa 50,000 to circa 200,000 in Elizabeth I’s reign meant that hard to find and hard to transport firewood (etc.) was replaced by easy to find and easy to transport sea-coal from the River Tyne region.

There has been a lot of writing on this change to coal, e.g. by John Hatcher, but before Goodman that has not much focused on the implication for cooking.

Basically, she argues wood fires burn in such a way that they allow some forms of cooking but discourage others. Wood and charcoal cooking she suggests retained an elite class aspect, but the urban poor, especially when grates and chimneys became widespread, used coal.

She argues that the lower and variable heat of wood fires encourage slow “thick” recipes (since “catching” was not an issue), but much hotter coal fires encourage thinner soups and methods where you cooked food by boiling it in bags (i.e. puddings, which arrive in recipe books in the early seventeenth century).

She also argues that while roasting in front of a wood fire produced beautiful meat, that was less possible with coal where shape of the fire was not good for spit roasting, and the smoke spoiled the meat. What we tend to call “roast” is instead “baked” meat and owes its predominance to the late 18th and 19th century development of iron ovens.

It is her comments on bread that I found most interesting.

She argues that because bread-baking required large ovens to be done efficiently it was mostly done in the middle ages by professionals. Historians tend to have a lot of information on this because millers and bakers were often well enough off to leave wills and so on.

In actual houses, though, she argues that wood and peat fires (with low heat) meant that much or most grain was in fact prepared as frumentary (a kind of thick porridge) with versions made from wheat, oats, and barley. So while not denying bread was important, she thinks that in medieval England it was less a way of consuming grain calories than is sometimes thought.

Coal fires, however, tend to make thick frumentary recipes “catch” (i.e. burn on the bottom) and as a result she thinks that there was an increase in the amount of bought bread and pies that people ate. They cooked thinner soups and stews but bought bread for bulk. She shows that the percentage of bakers increased in the population of London. So, because coal-fired cooking made stodgy stews less easy to cook, the amount of bread bought outside the home increased.

When smaller iron ranges became available, it was much easier to cook bread at home (which Victorian male authors encouraged in order to stop plaster-adulterated bread), but in fact it was not very economical to heat an oven for one or two loaves, and people did in fact continue to buy commercial bread.

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