Margaret Black’s Superior Cookery (1890)

Black’s second cookbook, Superior Cookery, also has a chapter on ‘Sick Room Cookery’, and is interesting to see how her approach changed between the two texts.  

The title page and frontispiece of Black’s Superior Cookery

As the title suggests, this cookbook was focused on finer food than Black’s previous work. The text opens with a short introduction in which Black writes that she has produced the book ‘at the solicitation of many pupils and friends’ and that ‘The Recipes given in this volume, like all the others which I have already issued, have been tested in my various classes, and are thus thoroughly reliable’ (1890: 3). Black clearly linked her cookbooks to her work at the West-End Training School of Cookery, and used her experience as an educator who taught and demonstrated cookery to ensure she gave her reader workable recipes that were derived from experience. Rather than opening this book with an analysis of the nutritive constituents of food as in her earlier text, Black simply writes that ‘no pains have been spared in the selection of the Recipes, which are of extensive variety, and embrace many choice and popular dishes likely to prove acceptable to the general public’ (1890: 3). This cookbook seems to be centred on fashion, rather than health which is not mentioned in the introduction as it was previously. Later in the cookbook there are still 13 pages directed to invalid recipes, however. 

Sick Room Cookery

The chapter on ‘Sick Room Cookery’ is the second-last in the cookbook, and consists of 35 recipes, so is more extensive than the chapter in Household Cookery and Laundry Work, despite the latter’s more explicit focus on health.

Not only are there more recipes in Superior Cookery, but there is a far larger focus on substantial meals, 17 of which are derived from or contain meat (there is another ‘Veal Jelly’ recipe which is almost identical to the one in Household Cookery as the veal and turnip are strained, though the second recipe is simplified). In contrast, 13 recipes don’t contain any meat, and so the majority are based on ‘animal food’. This goes against what Black argued in Household Cookery. Moreover, while there are still recipes based on soft or liquid foods including jellies, ‘Lemon Whey’, ‘Prune Water’, ‘Toast and Water’ and ‘Egg Flip’, far more of the recipes in Superior Cookery instruct the readers how to make dishes with a more solid consistency, like ‘Beef Steak’ and ‘Broiled Trout’. Indeed, many of the recipes in Superior Cookery are quite elaborate when compared to the plain recipes in the previous work in terms of the ingredients they use, and the richness of the meals they create.  

To take a few examples from throughout the chapter, ‘Tripe Fricasée’, ‘Beef Pounded or Invalids’ Quenelle’, ‘Chicken en Papillotes’, ‘Stewed Partridge’, ‘Roast Chicken’, ‘Broiled Chicken’ and ‘Quenelle of Fish’ are all recipes in which meat is the main ingredient. Even though Black’s cooking methods of mincing the fish or meat for the quenelles (a rugby-ball shaped fritter, or rissole) would have softened the texture by breaking it down, these dishes still provided the invalid with a more substantial meal than ‘Gruel’ or ‘Beef Tea Pudding’. 

Moreover, Black has presented these recipes with a certain level of flair through her use of the French titles: ‘Invalids’ Quenelle’ certainly sounds more appetising than ‘Beef Pounded’. This correlated with the distinct links between French and British cuisine that arose in the late eighteenth century and continued into the twentieth: French titles were often used by British chefs and food writers to demonstrate their gastronomic knowledge and integrate their foods into the culinary fashions of the time. Black has even given her recipe for a cure ‘for a tickling in the throat’ the title ‘Eau Sucrée’, despite it simply consisting of sugar and water. 

Invalid recipes with French titles in Black’s Superior Cookery

There is also a higher focus on flavour in this cookbook, demonstrated by recipes like ‘Anchovy Relish’, which ends with the note that ‘It is a relish that helps an invalid to enjoy food’ (1890: 188). Similarly, in the recipe for ‘Roast Chicken’, Black concludes by instructing the reader to ‘Carve the chicken then, and serve to the invalid only the best parts’, which suggests that enjoyment in good-quality food is what makes this roast chicken beneficial to the ill (1890: 186). Presentation, taste, and fashion are therefore foregrounded in these invalid recipes, which correlates with Black’s focus on ‘Superior Cookery’ – these are not just invalid recipes, they are superior invalid recipes, and fittingly they were infused with more flavour and an increased percentage of expensive ingredients like meat.  

Regardless of this superior tone, Black still links many of her recipes to illness and their benefit to the invalid, either through their titles (‘Restorative Jelly’, ‘Invalid’s Wafer Biscuits’) which hint at the way they will help and clarify that they’re for the invalid, or through directions in the text of the recipe. In the recipe for ‘Beef Pounded or Invalids’ Quenelle’, she writes: ‘this process of preparing the meat saves the stomach a great part of the labour of digestion, and is specially well adapted for cases of severe illness’ (1890: 177, 178).

Then in the recipe for ‘Tripe Fricasée’, Black notes that ‘Tripe has some property resembling pancreatic juice in its formation which aids digestion; it makes a slightly artificial digestion’ (1890: 177). In both recipes, Black combines fashionable French titles with mentions of how the dish is suitable to patients or medical needs. While she has style in mind, she has not let that overtake the focus on health and illness in this chapter. Indeed, just like her focus on the mineral elements of food in Household Cookery, the observation about digestion in her tripe recipe shows Black engaging with contemporary thinking that surrounded food, science and health.  

Tripe Fricasée recipe in Black’s Superior Cookery

As Lisa Haushofer writes, reports on dietary conditions in public institutions began to focus on the links between the digestibility of food, nourishment, and bodily health from the middle of the nineteenth century. If food was not easily digestible, it was thought that the body could not gain nutrition from it and was therefore not acting in an economical way: food should provide the most nutrition with the least ‘cost’. Because of this, ‘Digestion was therefore a topic of great political and scientific interest during the second half of the nineteenth century’ (Haushofer 2018: 172).

Artificial digestion became one solution to digestive problems: a method originally conceived in the late-eighteenth century as chemists and physiologists across Britain and Europe used the digestive juices of animals to reach conclusions about how gastric juices were involved in digestion [for further contextual detail on artificial digestion, read Haushofer’s article here] (Haushofer 2018: 173).  In the 1830s, the work of the German physiologist Theodor Schwann investigated the individual elements of gastric acid, and identified pepsin, which we now thing of as a digestive enzyme but which he called a ‘digestive ferment’ – ‘from here, it was a small step to imagine the entire digestive process as governed by digestive agents, separable from the body, and amenable to control’ (Haushoffer 2018: 175).  

If these elements of digestion could be controlled, they could be integrated into products. Just as Liebig’s extract of meat was a commercial, scientific product designed to aid nutrition, manufactured foodstuffs were produced to correlate with the discourses surrounding artificial digestion. One such product was ‘Benger’s Food’, which was the result of a collaboration between the physiologist William Roberts, his wife Elizabeth Roberts, and pharmaceutical chemist Frederick Baden-Benger. Their work was built upon Roberts’s realisation that pancreatic extracts were better for artificial digestion than stomach extracts – or hydrochloric acid – which created bitter by-products. Benger thus manufactured his ‘Liquor Pancreaticus’, which Roberts first employed to create a peptonised (or artificially digested) milk, and then a milk-based gruel. These recipes were adopted by the Mottershead Company who made a gruel based on Roberts’s peptonised gruel which became known as Benger’s Food: a pre-digested food that wouldn’t challenge the stomach or force the body to expend unnecessary energy, as the digestion had already taken place. The food was awarded a gold medal at the 1884 International Health Exhibition in London, and so was gaining attention during the time Black was working the in the cookery school and writing her cookbooks.  

Food, cookery, science and commercialism were equally balanced in products like Liebig’s extract and Benger’s food. Black didn’t suggest that reader’s use Benger’s food – just like she didn’t mention Liebig’s extract – but the same lines of thought ran through her cookbook. When she mentions the ‘pancreatic juice’ present in tripe, and that it ‘aids digestion […] a slightly artificial digestion’, her mention of artificiality directly links her recipe to the conversations, products, and lines of scientific thinking that were going on at the time (1890: 177). Notes like these therefore demonstrate how interlinked food, health and science were in cookbooks like Black’s, and even though she was not advertising specific products, her means of approaching food was rooted in scientific thought as well as in style and cultural taste. 

It was not just in the invalid recipes for food that health was at the forefront. In addition to the ‘Eau Sucrée’ recipe, Black includes three recipes in Superior Cookery that were for medicinal remedies or cures rather than foods, though they are made with foodstuffs: ‘Simple Antidote to Poison’, ‘Remedy for a Burn’, and ‘Remedy for Dysentery’.  

The poison antidote contains two methods, with the first simply consisting of egg whites – 2 or 3 for children, 6 for adults – which should be drunk immediately after poisoning. Alternatively, Black writes that ‘1 teaspoonful of mustard’ can be mixed into a tumbler of warm water which should be drunk at once: ‘Those are simple household remedies till medical aid can be got’ (1890: 185).

The ‘Remedy for a Burn’ is also derived from egg white, which is mixed and poured on the burn to soothe and heal it. Black writes that the egg white ‘effectually excludes the air, and thus helps to heal; as contact with the air is what causes great pain and inflammation’ (1890: 186). Finally, the ‘Remedy for Dysentery’ also uses an egg, which the cook is instructed to combine with a teaspoonful of sugar before the invalid ‘swallow[s] it at one gulp if possible’ (1890: 187). According to Black, this ‘soothes the inflammation in the stomach and intestines, and forms a transient coating to those organs, till gradually the disease is removed’ (1890: 187). The patient can take two or three eggs a day for this purpose, and if they are ‘kept very quiet, with a very light diet otherwise than the egg’, perhaps the dysentery would pass (1890: 187).

These recipes show eggs working very hard to treat the ill for numerous ailments, and so in her cookbook of superior recipes, Black emphasises the power of simple, cheap ingredients to cure the ill as well as tying her instructions to wider discussion of food and health.  

Superior Cookery is interesting in comparison to Household Cookery because it demonstrates how invalid recipes could be shifted to meet different agendas. In Black’s first cookbook she focused on simple recipes that had a few cheap ingredients. There is an emphasis on health, the science of food and the importance of invalid cookery in the introduction and Sick Room chapter of Household Cookery, and all of the recipes Black provides are similar in terms of the types and textures of food they describe: soft or liquid foods that are based on milk, grains, and eggs with no meat or vegetables. Larger discussions are invoked through her mention of Liebig and mineral food theory. Superior Cookery is far more expansive. Again, Black implicitly refers to the popular scientific debates surrounding food and health, but proffers her own recipes rather than advertising products. The references to scientific thought across the two cookbooks show her diversity of knowledge, but Superior Cookery presents a wider range of recipes, both in number and in the diversity of food types: meat dishes, main courses, jellies and desserts, and household remedies. This increased repertoire correlates with the French recipe titles and the focus on flavour and variety to emphasise the different aims of the two cookbooks: Superior Cookery is intended to teach the reader in a higher level of cookery, above the basic skills and recipes presented in the earlier text.  

This explains why there is little crossover in the recipes between the two cookbooks. Both Household Cookery and Superior Cookery have recipes for ‘Veal Jelly’ and ‘Toast and Water’, but apart from that, all the invalid recipes in Superior Cookery are new. Indeed, there are no recipes for Beef Tea in Superior Cookery, although within the recipe for ‘Beef Steak’, Black writes that ‘The juice of this meat is considered more nourishing than beef tea’ (1890: 179).  The recipes for ‘Veal Jelly’ are worded slightly differently between the two cookbooks but contain the same ingredients, timings, and cooking process. The recipes for ‘Toast and Water’ differ, however, and the ways they do speak well to the differences between Black’s cookbooks.  

Toast and Water

Toast water was a common recipe in nineteenth-century cookbooks, and it was often framed as a drink for invalids. It was made by submerging darkly toasted bread in water and steeping until the water took on some of the colour and (hopefully) taste of the bread. Alternatively, a version of this called ‘donkey tea’ was sometimes consumed by people who could not afford tea or coffee. As Andrea Broomfield writes, ‘The drink was hot, and at least it resembled tea in colour’ (2007: 26).  

Black’s recipe for ‘Toast and Water’

In Household Cookery the recipe for ‘Toast and Water’ reads as follows:  

Toast and Water. 

Toast the quarter of a slice of bread till it is quite 
brown in every part without being in the least burned. 
Have a jug, with three breakfast-cupfuls of cold 
water in it, into which put the bread, and allow it to  
stand for a few hours. 
Hot water is frequently used instead of cold, but 
the water is scarcely so clear and nice. In this case it 
must cool before being used. 
The water is put in the jug first and the bread put 
in, otherwise the bread gets crumbled. 
It is a most refreshing drink. (1882: 114-115). 

This is a detailed recipe which gives readers the quantities, timings and ingredients they needed, as well as providing a couple of alternative methods. All the information is contained in the body of the text, and Black finishes with a note about how refreshing the drink is. The recipe for the same beverage in Superior Cookery, on the other hand, is far more streamlined in appearance:  

Toast and Water. 
1 slice of Bread            1 thin slice of Lemon 

Toast the bread very carefully till it is all a rich brown 
colour; cut it in pieces. Put the lemon in a jug, pour on 
it three breakfast-cupfuls of boiling water, then drop in the 
pieces of toast, and stand to get cold; then strain it 
for use. (1890: 178) 

This recipe is much shorter than the earlier one, consisting of just 7 lines in total instead of 12. It also contains a separate ingredients list in bold type which means the reader can skim past the recipes and clearly see what ingredients they require, rather than having to read the whole recipe before they know whether they’ll be able to prepare it (though the ingredients are inferred from the title). Black has also added lemon to this later recipe for taste, which would lift the flavour of the otherwise bland liquid.

Furthermore, her language in the second recipe fits the more refined aim of Superior Cookery: the bread must be toasted ‘very carefully’ until it is a ‘rich brown colour’, rather than just ‘brown in every part’. Black’s word choice and the addition of lemon for taste means that this second recipe carries a more sophisticated tone which is in keeping with the polite, ‘superior’ nature of her cookbook. The recipe in Household Cookery is arguably homely in comparison.  

Comparing the invalid recipes in the cookbooks of the same author therefore highlights that there were similarities in what sorts of foods were suitable for invalids, but also that invalid recipes could be changed or adapted to suit different audiences and publications.

Across the two texts Black links her recipes to organic chemistry, fashion, the domestic expectations of women, and common contemporary discourses surrounding health. This adaptable approach gives her readers a range of recipes to try, depending on the ingredients they had and the requirements of the invalid they were feeding. Whether the patient needed a plain bowl of gruel or the more substantial (and perhaps appetising) ‘Chicken en Papillotes’, Black had recipes for them. Both cookbooks were published when Black was in charge at the West End School of Cookery, and Black’s significant knowledge as a culinary educator no doubt helped her to select and write recipes that would have been useful and reliable within the home for a variety of women.  


Black, Margaret. 1882. Household Cookery and Laundry Work (London and Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Co)

Black, Margaret. 1890. Superior Cookery (London and Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Co)

Broomfield, Andrea. 2007. Food and Cooking in Victorian Britain: A History (Westport: Praeger Publishers) 

Haushofer, Lisa. 2018. ‘Between Food and Medicine: Artificial Digestion, Sickness, and the Case of Benger’s Food’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 73.2: 168–187,

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