Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, History, Mrs Beeton

The Edwardian Craze for Paper Bag Cookery – Part 1

Advert for a gas cooker from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1915. Cooking with gas was recommended by Edwardian cooks as the best method for success with paper-bag cookery.

‘Paper bag cookery is now accepted by very many housewives as the most economical, efficient, and the simplest method of preparing our food for the table. In the first place, the food loses nothing in the cooking; in the second place, there is no smell;  and in the third place, there are no greasy pots and pans to wash up.’

Woman’s Weekly, 4th November, 1911

Paper bag cookery was popular with frugally minded Edwardian cooks from both sides of the Atlantic.  Woman’s Weekly promoted its use and Mrs Beeton even included a section on it in her Book of Household Management.  Mrs B was cautious about the method and somewhat sceptical that it was simply a passing fad:

‘Paper-bag cookery owes much of the prominence to which it has attained in consequence of its having been boomed in the Press, and because it was regarded as something new…Housewives, however, will do well to proceed cautiously at first and by way of experiment…Enthusiasts have declared that the system may be adapted to every description of food and food preparation, but these assertions are of too sweeping a character.  For vegetables, on the other hand, it may be doubted whether the paper-bag plan is suitable.’ (p.1516, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1915 edition)

In 1911, Vera Countess Serkoff’s Paper-Bag Cookery and Nicolas Soyer’s, Soyer’s Paper Bag Cookery were published.  In 1912, Emma Paddock Telford, who was the Household Editor of The Delineator, New Ideas and The Designer, wrote Standard Paper-Bag Cookery, adapted to the needs of American housewives and published by Applewood Books. Serkoff’s book, aimed at the household of the servantless cook, was very enthusiast about the advantages of paper-bag cookery:

‘A very great advantage both to mistress and maid is the cleanliness of the process.  It is undoubtedly an advantage when doing without a servant to have no pots and pans to soil one’s fingers, or to roughen one’s hands with the necessary strong soda water for cleansing kitchen utensils.’ (p. 6, Paper-Bag Cookery, 1911)

‘Paper-bag cookery is not a mere craze of the moment; for once its advantages have been discovered, it will become firmly rooted as one of the best and most economical means of preparing food ever invented.  Why it should have fallen into abeyance among civilised nations (except in the cooking of one or two special dishes) for so many centuries is impossible to surmise.’ (p.10, Paper-Bag Cookery, 1911)

Emma Telford’s, Standard Paper-Bag Cookery, aimed her book at a wider target audience: ‘…..for the small family, for the woman who does her own work and wishes to minimize labour, or for the epicurean but frugal housewife who looks personally after the details of her own little establishment.’

It was recommended by all the above authors that paper-bag cookery was best undertaken using a gas oven. In today’s risk averse society the combination of a naked flamed and paper seem pretty obvious.  If you want to read more about the history of gas usage in the UK home, then I suggest visiting The Gas Museum’s  fascinating website.  Click Here. 

The Edwardian cook would need to purchase specially created bags, available from department stores, grocers and butchers.  The bags came in a range of sizes, in bundles of thirty, together with sealing clips and a small book of recipes and full instructions.  American authors suggested that to get the best results from using this method, particularly when cooking meat, the food should be placed in a disposable wooden cookery dish which is then put into the bag.  This would ensure that if the bag burst, the juices would not be lost or create a mess in the oven.  The Oval Wood Dish Company, based in Delta, Ohio was one of the manufacturers of this type of cooking vessel.

In my second posting I will be bringing you a range of recipes from some of the above authors.  Paper-bag cookery is still popular today, sometimes called cooking En papillote.  Baking parchment and parchment bags are now used.  Fish cooks beautifully using this method and a theatrical moment is created when the parcel is unwrapped at the dinner table. There are a lot of contemporary paper-bag/En papillote recipes available on-line, but I would recommend the BBC‘s as your first port of call.  Click here.

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