Florence White: A Champion of British Cuisine, Part III, 1876-1910

For earlier installments of White's biography, please see my two former blog posts.

Florence White did not coin the term “foodways,” but her evolution as a food writer and cook, combined with her interests in history and sociology, are invaluable to what the term and discipline entails, whether White is acknowledged for her contributions or not.

When White wrote and illustrated for the Edinburgh Evening News, she was the only woman on a staff of twenty men, and as such recalled the days “when Mrs Johnstone edited Tait’s Magazine, in the time of Sir Walter Scott” (168). She told her colleagues that she was “‘no lady’ but just an ordinary journalist as any of [them]” and was allowed almost unlimited scope in topics to write about. Such freedom led to her interest in working-class girls and diet.

White initially investigated a none-to-rare situation: A girl’s mother died, leaving the child five shillings a week to support herself. By taking in another girl who paid three shillings sixpence in rent, the remaining shillings and pence were left to to cover their clothing, fuel, and food. Neither child knew how to buy or cook food, and so they survived on “bread and dripping, stewed tea, cheap pickles, and an occasional kipper or sausage, and porridge, anything to satisfy their appetites. No wonder they were ill,” White concluded (171).

As had happened to White before, her own health gave out. She was making £3 a week for her work, but in June 1898, her “heart crocked up” and there was no choice but to convalesce (181). Returning to London White survived on roughly a pound of week doing freelance journalism and continuing her social investigations.

When her health failed again in London, a doctor prescribed a sea voyage, and perhaps in some ways White’s on-and-off poor health was a boon because it facilitated her desire for travel and education abroad. White accompanied two young children to India, thus having her own voyage paid for, on top of a small wage. Another sickness resulted in both her brother and sister giving White an allowance, freeing her to convalesce in Paris where after she was stronger, she sought professional culinary training by attending Henri-Paul Pellaprat’s and Marthe Distel’s recently opened Le Cordon Bleu.

Marthe Distel and Henri-Paul Pellaprat with their students in front of l'École du Cordon Bleu in 1896, roughly eight years prior to White’s arrival there as a student (photo in the public domain)

“I avoided classes for ladies,” White stated bluntly. “I wanted the real thing, and got it” (220).

White hated to rely exclusively on her brother’s and sister’s allowances, so to make ends meet she lived abroad in Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Rome, Italy, working as an English language tutor and doing some teaching. Ultimately, at her brother’s and sister’s insistence, White returned to England, and to make herself feel better about her home country, she determined on a course of study that would have profound implications for her career: She treated where she was living with cousins in Priest Hutton, City of Lancaster, as if it were as worthy of the same scrutiny she had given to abodes abroad, particularly as the place related to historic and regional foodways.

White purchased a map and compass and drew a five mile radius around Lancaster to immerse herself in her home.

Reading at the Lancaster Public Library, White devoured the 1806 Beauties of England which led her to Gervase Markham’s English Huswife (or Housewife), a book so fundamental that she saved up her money to ultimately purchase a 1688 copy of this cookery book. Her “interest in the historic side of cookery dates” from the “result of reading” the two volumes together, White wrote (231). She explained how folk history, especially fashion and architecture, informed her understanding of food:

"I knew the houses in which they lived and how they were furnished and the clothes they wore--but what did they eat? From this time food and cookery meant much more to me than preparing meals. It meant clothing the dry bones of history with flesh and blood, and connecting skeletons thus clothed with the health of social life. I can now see any period in history with which I am acquainted as clearly as those years through which I have lived. It is the homely details that give history life” (232).

Particularly important to White was the nearby sixteenth-century manor, Borwick Hall, where she spent time exploring the house and garden.

Borwick Hall (Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0)

She was also fascinated with the history of Sizergh Castle in nearby Helsington, Cumbria, where she found an old alembic that turned her “attention to the use of herbs and flowers as food” (233). White began a note-book that became her 1934 book, Flowers as Food.

Sizergh Castle, courtesy of Chris Down, Wikimedia Common

Also of importance to White was Levens Hall, also in Cumbria, five miles south of Kendal, due to its “remarkable gardens.”

White supported herself by writing for the local press, publishing her discoveries and theories of the yet-to-be named discipline of foodways. The money earned from these ventures resulted in White gaining a bit more financial security and thus leaving her cousins to set out on her own, first to Carnforth, then Warton, later Melling, and Kendal. In 1909, White returned to Edinburgh, taking up residence with her friend Elsie at No. 8, Walker Street where she found herself in the “midst of suffragists” (p. 243).

White identified more as a Fabian than as a suffragist. Her earlier, visceral experience of living on “Round about a pound a week” (the title of Maud Pember Reeves’ and Charlotte Wilson’s study of London poverty supported by the Fabian Society’s Women’s Group), gave White an immediate understanding of the struggles of so many people, particularly women charged with feeding large families. It was class, more so than gender, that frequently animated White. In fact, she found it astonishing that in Scotland, a Presbyterian country, so many women had given over the importance of Sabbath worship to, in her words, the “idolatry of the parliamentary vote” (243).

Significantly, White disliked the low regard in which suffragists held domestic work, and I would hazard that her dislike had to do with the strongly entrenched middle- and upper-middle-class ideologies of suffragist leaders; those ideologies made White feel keenly her so-called “social inferiority” for her own life work and her constant economic struggles.

The complex nature of White’s musings on women’s work and the vote make this portion of her memoir fascinating. Ultimately, White identified more with the constitutional suffragists and never with the violence of the suffragettes.

While back in Edinburgh, White again wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News (likely freelancing), at one point publishing a leader article on the fact that if Britain were again to be involved in a continental war, the crux of the situation would revolve around the food question, “and the woman who could make a meal for two out of the allowance for one would be worth her weight in gold. Of course the sub-editors and reporters jeered at me, but so it turned out,” (247), White reflected, as the nation entered World War One.

While White does not dwell significantly on the war, her alarm at the destruction that violence in general can cause a nation when food supplies are cut off, and significant numbers of people who cannot cook meals based on bare basics, inspired the next phases of her career. That topic and White’s creation of the English Folk Cookery Association will be covered in my next and final installment regarding White’s memoir, A Fire in the Kitchen.


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