A Cookbook of Her Own





cookbooks, history, food writing

How to Cite

Singley, B. (2013). A Cookbook of Her Own. M/C Journal, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.639
Vol. 16 No. 3 (2013): cookbook
Published 2013-06-22


The recipe is more than just a list of ingredients and the instructions on how to prepare a particular dish. Recipes also are, as Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster argue, a form of narrative that tells a myriad of stories, “of family sagas and community, of historical and cultural moments and also of personal histories and narratives of self” (Floyd and Forster 2). Among the most intimate and personal sources of recipes are manuscript cookbooks. These typically contained original handwritten recipes created by the author as well as those shared by family and friends; some recipes were copied from published cookbooks or clipped out of newspapers and magazines. However, these books are more than a mere collection of recipes and domestic instructions, they also paint a unique and vivid picture of the life of their authors. These manuscript cookbooks were a common sight in many Australian colonial kitchens, yet they are a rarely examined and rich archival source that provides a valuable insight into foodways, material culture, and the lives and social relationships of the women who created them. This article will examine the manuscript cookbook created by Phillis Clark in the Darling Downs during the 1860s. Through a close examination of Clark’s manuscript cookbook, this article will explore colonial domestic habits and the cultural context in which they were formed. It will also highlight the historical value of manuscript cookbooks as social texts that chronicle daily life, both inside and outside the kitchen, in colonial Australia.

A Colonial Woman

Phillis Clark was born in Tasmania in 1836. She was the daughter of Charles Seal, the pioneer of the whaling industry in that state. In 1858 she married Charles George Clark, the eldest son of a well-known Tasmanian family. Both the Seal and Clark families were at the centre of social and political life in Tasmania. In 1861, the couple moved to Talgai, twenty two kilometres north-west of Warwick in the Darling Downs region of Queensland. Here, Charles Clark established himself as a storekeeper and became a partner in the Ellinthorp Steam Flour Mills, the first successful flour mill in Queensland (Waterson 3). He also represented Warwick in the Queensland Legislative assembly between 1871 and 1873. Clark’s brother, George Clark, also settled in the area together with his wife and family. In 1868, both families set up home in adjoining properties known as East Talgai and West Talgai. This joint property, with its well manicured gardens, English trees, and fruit orchard, has been described as a small oasis “in an empty, brown and dusty summer landscape” (Waterson, Squatter 19).

The Manuscript

Sometime during this period Clark began to compile her very own manuscript cookbook. The front of Clark’s manuscript is dated 1866, yet there is ample evidence to suggest that she began work on this manuscript some years earlier. Clark was scrupulous in acknowledging the sources of her recipes, a habit common to many manuscript cookbook authors (Newlyn 35). She also initialled her own creations, firstly with P.S., for her maiden name Phillis Seal, and later P.S.C. for Phillis Seal Clark, her married name. By 1866 Clarke had been married for eight years so it can be assumed that she commenced her manuscript some time before 1858. A number of the recipes that appear in the manuscript appear to be credited to people living in Tasmania. Furthermore, a number of the newspaper clippings found in her manuscript can be dated to before 1866, including one for 1861.

The manuscript itself is a hard bound and lined notebook, sturdy enough to withstand the rigours of daily use in the kitchen. The majority of recipes are handwritten but there are also a number of recipes clipped from newspapers interspaced within the manuscript. The handwritten recipes are in a neat copperplate style and all appear to be written in the same hand. The recipes are not found in distinct sections, although there are some small clusters of particular types of recipes, highlighting the fact that they were added to the manuscript over a period of time. At the front of the manuscript there is a detailed index noting the page number on which each recipe is to be found. The recipes themselves follow the standard conventions of the period.

The Sources

The sources from which Clark gathered some of the recipes in her manuscript indicate the variety of texts that were available to her. There are a number of newspaper clippings pasted in the pages of her manuscript for a range of both recipes for foods as well as the so-called domestic remedies (medicines) and receipts for household products. Amongst the food recipes there are to be found instructions in the making of cream cheese in the Irish manner and a recipe for stewed shoulder of mutton as well as two different methods for preparing kangaroo. While it is impossible to fully know what newspapers all these clippings have been taken from, at least one of them came from the Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser and it is likely that some of them might also have come from a number of the local Warwick papers (one which was founded by her brother-in-law George Clark) that were in publication during Clark’s residence in the area.

Clark also utilised a number of published cookbooks as sources for some of the recipes in her own manuscripts. Like most Australians until the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Clark would have mainly resorted to the British cookbooks that were available. The two most commonly acknowledged cookbooks in her manuscript were Enquire Within Upon Everything and Eliza Acton’s. Enquire Within Upon Everything was an immensely popular general household guide amassing eighty-nine editions in a little over forty years in print. It contained information on a plethora of subjects (over three thousand individual entries) including such topics as etiquette, first aid, domestic hints, and recipes. It first appeared on the British market in 1856, under the editorship of Robert Kemp Philp, and became available in Australia in the same year. Booksellers in the Darling Downs advertised copies of the book for the price of three shillings and six pence. Eliza Acton, for her part, was one of Britain’s leading cookbook authors. Her books were widely available throughout the colonies with copies advertised for sale by J. Walch and Sons booksellers in Hobart (‘Advertising’ 1). Extracts from her cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families began to appear in Australian newspapers only months after it first was published in Britain in 1845 (‘Bullion’ 4). Although Modern Cookery did not provide any recipes directly catering for Australian conditions, its simple and straightforward approach to cookery made it an invaluable resource in the colonial kitchen. Such was the popularity and reputation of Acton’s work that in the preface to Australia’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book, the author, Tasmanian born Edward Abbott, stated that he hoped that his cook book would posses “all the advantages of Mrs. Acton’s work” (Abbott vi). The range of printed sources contained within Clark’s manuscript indicate that women in colonial households were far from isolated from the culinary trends occurring in other parts of Australia and the wider British empire.

The Recipes

Like many Australian women of her class and generation, Phillis Clark reproduced the predominant British food culture in her kitchen. The great majority of recipes contained in her manuscript are for typically English dishes, particularly those for sweet dishes such as biscuits, cakes, and puddings. Plum pudding, trifle, and custard pudding are all featured in her book. As well, many of the savoury dishes such as curry, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding similarly reflect the British palate. In There is No Taste like Home: The Food of Empire, Adele Wessell argues that the maintenance of British food habits in Australia was a device to reaffirm “cultural and historical bonds and sustain a shared sense of British identity” (811).

However, as in many other rural kitchens, native ingredients also found a place. Her manuscript included a number of recipes for the preparation of kangaroo and detailed instructions for the butchering of the animal. Clark’s recipe for “Jugged Hare or Kangaroo” bares a close resemblance to the one that appears in Edward Abbott’s cookbook. Clark’s father and Abbott were from the same, small social milieu in colonial Hobart and were both active in the same political causes. This raises the intriguing possibility that Phillis also knew Abbott and came into contact with some of his culinary ideas. Australians consumed all manners of native ingredients, not only as a matter of necessity but also as a matter of choice. The inclusion of freshly killed native game in Clark’s kitchen would have served to alleviate the monotony of the salted beef and mutton that were common staples during this period. The distinct Australian flavour that began to appear in manuscript cookbooks like Clark’s would later be replicated in their printed counterparts. Australian cookbooks published in the last decades of the nineteenth century demonstrate the importance of native ingredients in colonial kitchens (Singley 37).

The Darling Downs region had been a popular destination for German migrants from the 1850s and Clark’s manuscript contained a number of recipes for German dishes. This included one for the traditional German Christmas cake Lebkuchen as well as for various German puddings and biscuits. Clark also included an elaborate recipe for making ham or bacon in the traditional Westphalian fashion. This was a laborious process that involved vigorously rubbing salt, sugar, and beer into the leg of ham every day for a fortnight after which it is then hung to dry for a couple of days and then smoked. Katie Hume, a fellow Darling Downs resident and a close friend of the extended Clark family described feeling like a “gute verstandige Hausfrau” (a good sensible housewife) after salting 112 pounds of pork she had purchased from a neighbour (152). While, unlike their counterparts in the Barossa valley in South Australia, the Germans who lived in the Darling Downs area did not leave a significant mark on the local culinary landscape, the inclusion of German recipes in Clark’s manuscript indicates that there was not only some cross-cultural transmission of culinary knowledge, but also some willingness to go beyond traditional British fare.

Many, more mundane recipes also populate Clark’s manuscript. “Toad in a Hole”, “Mutton Pie” and “Stewed Sirloin” all merit an entry. Yet, even with such simple dishes, Clark demonstrated a keen eye for detail. This is attested by her method for the preparation of a simple dish of roasted pumpkin: “Cut into slices 1 inch thick and about 5 inches long, have ready a baking dish with boiling fat—lay the slices in it so that the fat will cover them and bake for 20 minutes (by fat I mean good dripping) Half an hour will not bake them too much. They ought to be brown” (Clark 13).

Whilst Clark’s manuscript is not indicative of the foodways of all classes across Queensland society, it does provide some insight as to what was consumed at the table of a well-heeled rural household. As the wife of a prominent businessman and a local dignitary, Phillis Clark would have also undoubtedly been called upon to play the role of hostess and to entertain her husband’s commercial and political acquaintances. Her manuscript also reflects the overwhelmingly British nature of colonial Australian foodways despite the intrusion of some foreign dishes. As Anne Murcott argues, the preparation and consumption of food provides a way through which individuals can express the more abstract significance of cultural values and social systems (204).

The Clark household also showed some interest in producing a broad range of products in the home. There are, for example, a number of recipes for beverages including those for non-alcoholic ginger beers and flavoured cordials. They were also far from abstemious, with recipes for wine, mead, and ale included in the manuscript. This last recipe was given to her by her brother Alfred who, according to Clark, “understands brewing and therefore I think it can be depended upon” (Clark 43). Clark also bottled her own fruit, made a wide range of jams, including grape and mock melon, as well as making her own butter, confectionery, and vinegar. The production of goods like these within the home indicates the level of self-reliance in many colonial households, particularly those finding themselves far from the convenience of shops and markets.

Many culinary historians argue that there exists a significant time lag between the initial appearance and consumption of a particular dish in a society and its subsequent appearance in the pages of a cookbook. This time lag can be between forty and 150 years long (Mennell 44; Mason 23). However, manuscript cookbooks reflect the immediacy of eating practices. The very personal nature of manuscript cookbooks would suggest that the recipes included within their pages were ones that the author intended to use in her own kitchen. Moreover, from the reciprocal nature of recipe sharing that is evident from these types of cookbooks it can be concluded that the recipes in Clark’s manuscript were ones that, at least in her own social milieu, were in common usage.

In her manuscript Clark clearly noted those recipes which she especially liked or otherwise found useful. Many recipes throughout the manuscript have been marked as “proved” indicating that Clark had used and tested them at some stage. A number of them have also been favourably annotated as being “delicious”, “very nice”, “the best”, and “very good”. Amongst the number of recipes for “Soda Cake” that feature in the manuscript Clarke clearly indicates that “Number 1 is the best”. However, she was not averse to commenting on recipes and altering them to suit her taste. In a recipe for “A nice light Cake”, for example, Clark noted that the addition of a “little peel and currants is an improvement” (89). This form of marginal intrusion was a common practice amongst many women and it can even be seen in the margins of many published cookbooks (Theophano 186). These annotations, according to Sandra Sherman, are not transgressive, since the manuscripts are not authored “by” anyone (Sherman 121). In fact, annotations personalise the recipe and confirm the compiler’s confidence in it (Sherman 121).

Not Just Food: ‘Domestic Receipts’

As noted above, Clark’s manuscript contained more than just recipes for food and drink. Many of them are “Domestic Receipts” that reflect the complex nature of running a household in rural Australia. Some of Clark’s domestic receipts are in the form of newspaper clippings and are general instructions for the manufacture of simple household products such as a “ready to use glue” and a home-made tooth powder. Others are handwritten and copied from other domestic advice books or were given to Clark by family and friends. A recipe for manufacturing “blacking for stoves”, essential in the maintenance of cast iron stoves, was, for example, culled from Enquire Within Upon Everything. Here, with some authorial intrusion, Clark includes her own list of measured ingredients to prepare the mixture. An intriguing method for the “artificial preparation of ice” involving the use of ammonium nitrate and bicarbonate of soda was given to Clark by Mrs. McKeachie, the wife of Charles Clark’s business partner. Clark also showed an interest in beekeeping and in raising turkeys, with instructions for both these tasks included in her manuscript. The wide range of miscellaneous receipts featured in Clark’s book highlights the breadth of activities that were carried out in many homes in rural Australia. A hint of Clark’s artistic side is also in evidence, with detailed instructions on how to create delicate fern impressions on paper also included in her book.

As with many other women in colonial Australia, Clark was expected to take on the role of caregiver when members of her family fell ill or were injured. Her manuscript included a number of recipes for “domestic remedies”, another common trope in books of this kind as well as in their printed counterparts. These remedies included recipes for a cough mixture composed of linseed, liquorice, and water and a liniment to treat rheumatism which was made by mixing rape seed oil and turpentine with a hefty dose of laudanum. Clark used olive oil in a number of medical recipes to treat burns and scalds. As well, treatments for diphtheria, cholera, and diarrhoea feature prominently in her manuscript. The Darling Downs had been subject to a number of outbreaks of dysentery and cholera during Clark’s residency in the area (Waterson, Squatter 71). For “a pain in the chest” Clark recommended the following: “a piece of brown paper spread with tallow and placed on the chest” (69).The inclusion of these domestic remedies and Clark’s obvious concerns for her family’s health is particularly poignant given her personal history. Her family was plagued by misfortune and illness and she lost three of her ten children in a six-year period including two within just months of each other. Clark herself would die during childbirth in 1874.

Sharing and Caring

The word “recipe” has its origins in the Latin recipere meaning to “receive”. In order to receive there has to be, by implication, someone doing the giving. A recipe signifies an exchange and a connection between individuals. The sharing of recipes was a common activity for many women in nineteenth century Australia. Wilhelmina Rawson, Queensland’s first published cookbook author, was keenly aware of the manner in which women shared recipes and culinary knowledge. This act of reciprocity, she argued, not only helped to ease the isolation of bush living but also allowed each individual to be “benefited by the cleverness of the whole number” (14).

For many, food often has a deeply private and personal component, being prepared and consumed within the realm of the home. However, food is also a communal experience and is openly shared through rituals, feasts, the contexts in which it is bought and sold, and, most importantly, reciprocal exchange. In her manuscript, Clark acknowledged a number of different individuals as the source for the recipes she included within its pages. The convention of acknowledging the sources of recipes in manuscript cookbooks functions as a way to assert the recipe’s authority and to ensure that they are proven (Sherman 122). This act of acknowledgement also locates Clark within a social network of women who not only shared recipes but also, one can imagine, many of the vicissitudes of domestic life in a remote rural setting. In her study of women’s manuscript cookbooks, entitled Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano describes these texts as “the maps of the social and cultural life they inhabited” (13). This circulation of recipes allowed women to share their knowledge, skills, and creativity. Those who received and used these recipes not only engaged in a conversation with the writer of these recipes but also formed a connection with a broader community that allowed them to learn more about themselves and the world.


The manuscript cookbook created by Phillis Clark is a fascinating prism through which to explore domestic life in colonial Australia. The recipes contained in Clark’s manuscript reflect the eating habits of her own family and those of a particular social class in Queensland. They not only demonstrate the tenacity of British foodways in Australia but also show the degree of culinary adventurism that existed in some homes. The personal, almost autobiographical nature of manuscript cookbooks also provides an intimate view in the life of its creator. In the splattered pages of Phillis Clark’s book we can read the many travails, joys, and tragedies of her life.


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Author Biography

Blake Singley, Australian National University

PhD Candidate, School of Histor, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.