The history cook: ‘The Country Housewife’s Family Companion’

The Country Housewife’s Family Companion, by William Ellis, 1750

If the horsemeat scandals of recent weeks have confirmed one thing, it is that supply chains are so convoluted few of us know where our food comes from. In the midst of such chaos this book, published in 1750, gives a striking impression of England before agricultural revolution and industrialisation separated food production and consumption. The readers of Ellis’s The Country Housewife’s Family Companion grew the food they ate and knew its provenance exactly.

While urban elites were feasting on French fancies, the food Ellis wrote about was plain English country fodder. His book was intended for the farmer beneficiaries of 18th-century land enclosure. Enclosures saw more than two million acres of open fields, woodlands and common lands brought into private ownership, assuring wealth for some and destitution for many more. For the lucky ones, larger farms, better seed varieties, improved animal husbandry and new mechanical tools brought increased prosperity.

Ellis was a rural entrepreneur who cashed in on this agricultural zeitgeist. Born in the 1680s, he worked as a brewer and custom house officer in London before purchasing a farm in Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire. He wrote 11 books about farming, sold his own seed varieties and invented agricultural tools.

Contemporaries were somewhat scathing. The Swedish agricultural economist Pehr Kalm visited Ellis in 1748 and reported that if he “relied on his farm he would soon have to go and beg – for Mr Ellis mostly sits at home in his room and writes books, and goes sometimes a whole week without going out …”

But his plain-spoken hotchpotch of advice and description creates a visceral impression of rural life in the 18th century. The book’s frontispiece illustration shows the world Ellis was writing about: a scruffy farmyard with cattle grazing in the foreground.

As food production – for sale and private consumption – was the primary task of the 18th-century rural householder, recipes feature throughout. The farmer’s wife was required to “preserve wheat, barley, oat meals, meat, root, fruits and herbs from the damage of insects”, to pickle and distil, to “manage sows and pigs, cows and fowls of several sorts” and to feed “harvest men” and maintain farmers and servants “the rest of the year”. Ellis covers all these subjects and more.

Pancakes, he claims, “are one of the cheapest and most serviceable Dishes of a Farmer’s Family in particular” because all the ingredients “are his own produce”. Similarly, apple pies and pasties “are a main Part of a prudent, frugal Farmer’s Family Food, because the Meal and Apples that make them are commonly the Produce of his Land” and able to create an “agreeable palatable Repast”. Ellis also promotes potatoes, a relatively new addition to the English diet, because they are “a most serviceable and most wholesome Root”.

Frugal but canny household management includes feeding harvesters “cheaply and satisfactorily” for up to two months. Ellis advises killing a “barrow hog” in preparation and providing beef, bacon, pickled pork, beans, pease puddings, pasties, cheese, milk and ale to ensure that the men “will go on briskly with their Work and do a great deal of it in a Day”. Throughout his book Ellis accounts for the different circumstances of his readers – there are recipes for luxury puddings and rich pastries but also one for “a poor Woman, her Way to make Fat go the Farthest in making Paste of Barley-Meal for Pyes”.

Ellis advises strongly against buying provisions from shops – shopkeepers will “get all the Intelligence they can of your Affairs, and if they are prejudiced against you, they will make an ill Use of it, to your Disadvantage”. Shop-bought food was likely to be expensive and, worse, adulterated – suspicions that currently seem remarkably familiar.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘The Country Housewife’s Family Companion’ by kind permission from the British Library collection


Boil, peel, and mash the Potatoes: this done, mix two Pounds of the Pulp with half a Pound of Butter, four eggs, Pepper, Salt, and Ginger, and when they are all beaten together into the Consistence of a Pudding, it may be either boiled or baked; when enough, eat it with melted Butter. – Or, you may mix with Potatoe-pulp, scraped Carrot, Sugar, Butter, Nutmeg, Salt and Eggs, which put in a Dish with Paste round it, and bake it half an Hour in a quick Oven. – Or, if you have a mind to make a Potatoe-pudding richer, mix minced Apples with Potatoe-pulp, Cream, fine Sugar, powder’d Cinnamon and Cloves, and being beaten all together into a pudding Consistence, put it in a Paste and bake it in a Dish.

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