I don’t think it’s possible to address the question of whether employers appropriated the culinary knowledge of their cooks without understanding the different kinds of cooks in domestic service.

Four ranks of cooks were recognized, obviously with many gradations: male cooks and their staff in the grandest houses; professed (trained) cooks with a couple of staff in very well-to-do houses; plain cooks with no staff in prosperous houses; and maids of all work (or cooks-general) who might do a bit of cooking in aspiring households.

For reasons I will explain, I suspect that culinary appropriation, if it occurred and if that’s the best word for it, took place with the employers of professed cooks and plain cooks. I doubt much went on with male cooks or with maids of all work.
I’ll use England as my main example because it is so well-studied. I suspect though that similar distinctions existed elsewhere and I’ll throw in parallels where it seems appropriate. Remember this does not pretend to be an original study of cooks in domestic service.  There are lots of books on that, including the two recommended at the end.

I am talking about the high point of domestic service, the half century or century when a society urbanizes and industrializes. In England this is from the late eighteenth century to the 1930s, in the United States it is somewhat later, from the mid-nineteenth century to World War II.

Master Cooks

The Duke of Newcastle and his Cook, Pierre Clouet, whom he paid 100 pounds in the late eighteenth century

The Duke of Newcastle and his Cook, Pierre Clouet, whom he paid 100 pounds in the late eighteenth century.

At the very top, in the grandest houses were French cooks (or as we would now say, chefs). Invariably male, they might be French, or just trained in French cooking. 5000 of them were working in London at the end of the nineteenth century.

French cooks prepared high French or Anglo-French cuisine, producing formal meals for large numbers of people.  They were the kinds of cooks who would have prepared the more splendid of the meals re-created by Ivan Day.  They could move from private house to club.  In the United States, this is the kind of household described by Robert Roberts in The House Servant’s Directory (1827) or the kind of cooking in Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus (1911).

French cooks were paid at least twice what a professed cook received and, if in demand, much more.  He commanded lots of underlings to do the work. Although this kitchen set up may seem awfully grand, in fact it was quite scaled-down compared to the great palace-kitchen-processing centers that had been around from Sumerian times to the seventeenth century and that had staffs of hundreds, or even a thousand or more.

Those who employed such cooks were unlikely to want to appropriate recipes. And conversely, with their reputation of being proud and touchy, it seems unlikely that they would have let it happen. Indeed many of them, Carême, for example, were more than capable of writing their own cookbooks, building on the canon of French cooking. Other examples are Charles Francatelli, cook to Queen Victoria, who published The Modern Cook in 1846 and Louis LeCompte, cook at Harewood House, and a major contributor to the most important late nineteenth-century work on this kind of cooking in England, the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery (1880s).

Present day equivalents? In private houses, very few. Perhaps the White House, though that scarcely counts as a private house. A large restaurant would perhaps be the nearest equivalent.

Professed Cooks


Professed cooks, that is, cooks who “professed” or declared that they had learned fine cooking by apprenticeship, usually spending several years as a kitchen maid.  Although obviously men cooks were “professed,” the term was generally used for women cooks employed by well-to-do households.

A professed cook would have been able to prepare French sauces. She would have expected to have at least a housemaid and a scullery maid in the house as well, the housemaid to take care of cleaning, the scullery maid to prepare the vegetables and do the washing up. In most cases she would have had a kitchen maid too.

The Scullery Maid. Henrik Nordenberg, late 19th century. Wikimedia.

The Scullery Maid.I remember my aunt’s cold, dark scullery where the vegetables were cleaned and the game plucked and drawn. Henrik Nordenberg, late 19th century. Wikimedia.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a professed cook could command a salary of 40 pounds sterling a year  (some sources suggest as much as 50 to 70 pounds).  She would also have had her board, lodging, and some perks that together amounted to a non-negligible sum. The scullery maid would have had 12 to 18 pounds a year, a kitchen maid more like 20 pounds. (For comparison, an Anglican priest had 140 pounds, a man in the Indian Civil Service 300 pounds. Middle class incomes were in the 125 to 1000 pound range, to be upper class you needed 5000 and up).



The professed cook was literate and there were plenty of books that catered to her needs, such as B. Clermont’s Professed Cook (1776 and running to many editions) though much of what she knew would have been in her head.

Present day equivalents?  Perhaps in private houses  the personal chef, though most would not be responsible for as much entertaining as in the past. In restaurants, any cook who has worked up through the ranks.

Plain Cooks


Many plain cooks and cook-generals struggled with their task. The Disgruntled Cook. From Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany to the Family Circle (1855).

Plain cooks were women who might or might not have had some training.  She might have had a girl to help her but most likely she prepared meals on her own or with her employer.

The big divide between the professed cook and the plain cook was that the latter was not expected to prepare the expensive meat-based sauces of Anglo-French high cuisine, whether those based on fonds or the aspics. Before you howl “plain cooking” sounds dreadful, like plain jane, try substituting words such as simple, fresh, or natural. They were expected to be able to cook a roast, boil vegetables, and make sauces such a white sauce, oyster sauce, celery sauce, bread sauce, or mint sauce. They were also expected to prepare a simple pudding (as dessert was called in England), such as apple pie or a steamed apple pudding.

This is a really interesting category of cooks, probably the most rapidly growing in the late nineteenth century.  I want to return to it in my next post.


Kitchen in Kent Farmhouse (50 miles from London). Peter Hampson Ditchfield, The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England, 1912. Reproduced in C. Davidson, A Woman's Work is Never Done (1982).

Kitchen in Kent Farmhouse (50 miles from London). Peter Hampson Ditchfield, The Cottages and the Village Life of Rural England, 1912. Reproduced in C. Davidson, A Woman’s Work is Never Done (1982).

No, not a military general, but general housework.  A maid of all work, not expected to do much except help with the cooking.

From personal experience, I strongly suspect that these young women did little of the actual cooking.  Apart from the fact that they were more than busy cleaning and running after children, if they came from the countryside they encountered both kitchens and styles of cooking that were largely unknown to them.

In the remoter rural areas of England in the nineteenth century, at least in the simpler homes, most cooking was griddle cooking of flat breads or wet cooking of soups, stews, beans, porridges, gruels and the like.  Even the kind of plain cooking done on an iron range would have been new to a country girl.

The modern kitchen of the late nineteenth century. Leibig Company's Practical Cookbook (1870s, reprinted Southover, 1999).

The modern kitchen of the late nineteenth century. Leibig Company’s Practical Cookbook (1870s, reprinted Southover, 1999).


I have experienced this situation in various parts of the world (NIgeria, Mexico or with young women from other countries).  The individual might have many skills–making tortillas, managing a fire–but they did not translate into the kinds of food that I was going to cook except out of anthropological interest or that my family ate.  That’s why I suspect there is little appropriation in these kinds of circumstances.







This follows two other posts in a series on Servants in the Kitchen: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t; and Servants Have a History Too.  There are two more to come. Cooks and Housewives; and Culinary Appropriation.

For high end English country house kitchens, see Pamela A. Sambrook and Peter Brears, The Country House Kitchen 1650-1900 (National Trust, 1996).

For English domestic cooks more generally, see Jennifer Davies, The Victorian Kitchen (BBC, 1989).

For those who don’t already know it, the Household Books site at Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California at Davis gives access to bibliographies originally published by the estimable Prospect Books and, cheers, their excellent introductions.  A look at this will broaden anyone’s vision of the history of housekeeping.

A good description of the servant hierarchy in a large house.

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