A Rare Glimpse and a Unique Resource

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on April 04 2013

A Rare Glimpse And A Unique Resource

Here at Jas. Townsend & Son, we’re presently researching, of all things, the history of pancakes.  We noticed a broad range of various pancake recipes as we perused the numerous period cookbooks in preparation for our video series, but we routinely skipped over them for more adventurous fare. But the ubiquitous pancake has finally caught the attention of our easily enticed eyes, and as a result, you can fully expect future blog entries as well as videos on this historically important food item.

But pancakes are not the point of this post.

Nestled in this grand terrain of flapjack, fritter, and crepe recipes rises a mountain of a treatise on pancakes by William Ellis, in his book The Country Housewife’s Family Companion. Lacking the pedigree of most of his competing culinary counterparts, Ellis, who was a maven of anecdote, drew upon his skills in observation and storytelling to present a grand collection of conventional wisdom. The frontispiece of this 1752 work on country life and cooking admits the rather unconventional qualifications for an author of a cookbook with the line, “The whole [of this book is] founded on nearly 30 years of experience by W. Ellis, Farmer…”

The few remaining references on Ellis’s life suggest that he was a popular 18th-century author, albeit only briefly, on English agriculture. His collection of best practices in agricultural affairs was popular among English country gentlemen, yeomen, and farmers, that is, until some of his readers visited his farm hoping to observe his prescribed methods as well as their successful outcomes. Instead, what they reported was a farm in complete disarray, and consequently much of Ellis’s writing was eventually dismissed as being largely fabricated.

Let that serve as a caveat to our modern interpretations, but even so, let us also avoid being too hasty to throw out the curds with the whey. The fact is, The Country Housewife’s Family Companion still gives us a rare glimpse into the daily customs, challenges, and conditions of  English country folk.

This book merits further study by those interested in 18th-century cooking, husbandry, and country living in general.

You can find a digital version of  The Country Housewife’s Family Companion here, with a superglossary offered here.

Printed versions are advertised here by Prospect Books.

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