Hero-historian of food from the 50s


by Jackie Alfonso | April 14, 2009 • Dorothy Hartley was one of the hero-historians, a gleaming example of an academic background at its best. She wrote and lectured widely in her subject area, she had a quite separate career as a brilliant illustrator, and she knew how to find unusual connections

Lemonade Chronicles is a blog written by Jackie Alfonso, a local writer who is deeply concerned about food … and other issues.

Miss Hartley’s most important book was Food in England, published in 1954.
In it she described the historical context for most of the things eaten in England, and the context included minutiae others might not notice – such as the impact of Dutch canal builders on the East Anglia diet when Dutch workers were hired to complete the drainage of the fens.

She explored the impact of the kind of fuel on the shape of cooking pots, and thus on the type of cookery. Along the way Miss Hartley lived in a public school where her mother was the cook, in a convent of imaginative nuns, and in great country houses.

A very direct person, she objected to the soft life: There are tales of her accepting a speaking engagement in Yorkshire, jumping on her bicycle at her home in the Welsh Marches, and eating off the land and under a tarp for the weeks it took to get to York.

Lost Country Life is a quirky book that traces the elimination of many trades and occupations through the surnames we have left. How many glovers now make gloves? Where are the potters, fletchers, cordwainers? Hundreds of occupations were lost when mechanization became the norm, and the people who plied those trades (Smith, Sawyer, Chandler,) became John’s son.

Water in England explores the many ways information filtered through society in times when schooling was separated by class, few people were literate, and educated people had little concern for the comfort of the ruder classes. At the same time, those who built bridges, cathedrals, or privies needed an understanding of physics in order to do their jobs.

Miss Hartley’s books are still available, on the soft manila paper that has become so familiar. The town where she lived most of her life has warmed to her over time, and she features large on their website.

Although I am fully aware that England is not Minnesota, I find the books to be beautifully thought through. They are also the sort of thing that may, some day, be extremely valuable, should we find the need to get back out of meccano living and into a scale of life that is deeper. Or perhaps we will need to resurrect methods of storing for winter or for travel, drying mushrooms, raising pies, doing for ourselves, and Miss Hartley can guide us.