Evolution Began With a Second Helping of Beef Collops (Maybe)

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It's Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday next Thursday, and the books are streaming out of publishing houses like so many startled pigeons. Nestled in among all the Beagles, giant tortoises, finches, vegetable mould, and barnacles arrives a volume seemingly written with the Food&Thinker in mind, a book that nails the sweet spot between supper and science. And we have Emma Darwin to thank for it.

Charles's devoted wife collected recipes throughout their marriage, and the dishes she served as he formulated the theory of evolution have just been turned into a cookbook. Two historian-foodies, Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway, studied Emma's writings and adapted her recipes for modern kitchens and ingredients. It's for a good cause, too: the book project raises money for continued research into Charles Darwin's papers.

The New York TImes's Paper Cuts blog mentioned the book a few days ago, though I regret to say their coverage offered little more than a warmed-over joke about English cooking. Bad blogger! No Ovaltine!

Fortunately for all concerned, the Arts and Culture section over at a place called Smithsonian offers not only a real review by someone who actually read the book, but also reproduces some of Emma's dessert recipes along with delectable photos of the dishes as recreated by the cookbook's authors. (The food history blog Gherkins & Tomatoes also has a fine review.)

I don't know about you, but I'm going to make some Nesselrode Pudding just as soon as I can lay my hands on some heavy cream, brandy, ground almonds, and an ice cream maker all at the same time. Till then I'll have to make do with Burnt Cream—an endearing name straight out of the honest tradition of English cooking. And you can rest assured it tastes just as good as its French translation, crème brûlée.

By the way, you can read Emma's recipes—from Scotch Woodcock to the intriguing Pudding in Haste—all in her own handwriting at Cambridge University's Darwin-online site. They also offer quite a bit of work by her husband.

Read more articles about Charles Darwin and his legacy in Smithsonian's online special feature and in this month's print magazine.

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