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Food for Thought

Romantic Interests: Peacock's Science of Cookery


Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), novelist, poet, trade company official, steam engine expert and gourmet—a Renaissance man of the Romantic age—once convinced his friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a passionate vegetarian, to cave in to meat-eating.

Shelley, often in ill health, was feeling particularly sick and depressed on a boating trip up the Thames in 1815 when Peacock prescribed him "three mutton chops, well peppered." Peacock indulged in culinary pleasures of all types, and saw Shelley's diet as abject deprivation. Desperate enough to venture from his vegetable regimen, Shelley ate the meat—and became immediately cheerful and robust!

At least that's how Peacock remembered it, over forty years later, when Shelley, long dead, couldn't defend the nutritional sufficiency of vegetables. (Mary Shelley attributed her husband's quick convalescence to the fresh air.)

Thomas Love Peacock., Digital ID 483686, New York Public LibraryAlbumen print photograph of T. L. Peacock (1857), from NYPL's Berg CollectionPeacock's predilection for meat is evident in a handwritten cookbook, The Science of Cookery, held by NYPL's Pforzheimer Collection. Mostly in Peacock's hand, the manuscript gives instructions for preparing (over a fireplace) just about every body part of an ark's worth of beasts and birds. It has recipes for leg, loin, neck, breast, haunch, hind-quarter, fore-quarter and shoulder of cow, lamb, pig, deer and goat. Avian delights include: roasted goose, duck, pheasant, partridge, woodcock, pigeon, and lark (hail to thee, blithe Spirit!). A recipe for peacock is unsurprisingly omitted.

Long believed to be an original work, The Science of Cookery is in fact a revision for a new edition of one of Peacock's favorite cookbooks: The Cook's Oracle, by the aptly named William Kitchiner (see NYPL copy in HathiTrust). Much of the manuscript is copied directly from Kitchiner's text; Peacock condenses and paraphrases where he sees fit and adds some specific cooking times (which perhaps in part explains the change in title from the magical to the methodical).

The revision was a family affair, apparently led by Peacock's daughter, Mary Ellen, who was also aided by her husband, the Victorian novelist George Meredith. NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives Division holds a separate manuscript volume with drafts towards the same cookbook project (Whitney MS 16), which Mary Ellen abandoned in 1856, shortly before she abandoned her husband—for the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Wallis.

Beyond The Science of Cookery, a collection of Peacock's original recipes—also quite meat-heavy—is held by the Pforzheimer Collection, written on scraps of paper. See this PDF for a complete transcript of these recipes, which include calf's head pie, stewed rump steak, and mutton neck cutlets. Some recipes are obviously missing some steps, and would be difficult for a novice to follow.

Rosebud in gold locket, "From Byron to Peacock, 1819."Rosebud in gold locket, "From Byron to Peacock, 1819."Peacock is best remembered for his satirical novels, including Nightmare Abbey (1818), which caricatures both Shelley and Lord Byron. The novel parodies the two poets as melancholy and morbid, and burlesques the whole genre of Gothic fiction, then highly popular (Frankenstein was published earlier the same year).

Shelley appreciated Nightmare Abbey, and deemed the joke on him to be "admirably conceived and executed." Byron's initial response is unknown, but within the Pforzheimer Collection is a dried rosebud inside a gold locket inscribed, "From Byron to Peacock, 1819." According to tradition, Byron sent Peacock the rosebud as a sign he bore him no ill will.

[For a further account of the manuscripts mentioned in this post, see Anne Mendelson's "The Peacock-Meredith Cookbook Project: Long-sundered Manuscripts and Unanswered Questions," in Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library, volume 2, number 1, Fall 1993, pages 77-99.]


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