Liquid nitrogen. High-end machines. Savory ice cream. Complex molds and intricate toppings. These might sound like things you might find in a fancy restaurant, but they were also the tools of a 19th-century woman who revolutionized home cooking. Long before Martha Stewart, Agnes Marshall was one of the Victorian era’s most important celebrity cooks—and you might be able to spot her legacy in your own kitchen today.
Born in England in 1855, Marshall taught an entire generation of Victorian women to cook. In a time before modern appliances and household conveniences, she brought technology into the kitchen—and taught women to use it to create elaborate delicacies.
“She enabled quite ordinary English women to produce dishes of a very high technical accomplishment,” says Ivan Day, a food historian who has recreated many of Marshall’s complicated recipes in his vintage kitchen. Those dishes—like anchovy biscuits, turtle soup, escalopes of calf’s head and cream of rabbit in aspic—may seem outdated today. But at the time, they were a way for middle-class women to show off their social status and good taste.
Marshall’s dishes were designed to be eaten in overdecorated dining rooms filled with corseted ladies and chivalrous gentlemen. But that was no simple task. Households had staffs to perform the drudgery of cleaning and cooking, but many of those workers were women who had never heard of complicated dishes.
That’s where Marshall came in. In 1885, she opened the National Training School of Cookery in London. Housewives and servants alike attended the school to watch her cook, and those who could not make it in bought her cookbooks.
Like Martha Stewart, she created a culinary empire: She sold skillets, ice cream molds and cooking ingredients like branded food coloring, baking powder (still a relatively new invention) and gelatin. She even created an employment agency so wealthy women could hire her graduates. Slowly, she began to change what appeared on Victorian tables and how those dishes were prepared.
“She was a great example of an early female businesswoman,” says Day, who calls her head for commerce “remarkable.”
So was her ice cream. Marshall’s skill at inventing new, exciting varieties was so legendary that she became known as the “Queen of Ices.” Ice cream hadn’t always been accessible to average people: Though it was invented in the fifth century, its reliance on refrigeration meant that only the very wealthy could eat it. That changed around the time of Marshall’s birth, when a Swiss immigrant to England named Carlo Gatti began importing Norwegian ice to London and selling ice cream at a stand. Suddenly, the growing middle class was clamoring for it.
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Marshall was there to give it to them. She invented a series of dramatic and complex dishes that would put any modern restaurant to shame. “The range of flavors was well beyond anything we have yet revived in Michelin-starred restaurants,” says Day. “We have forgotten how sophisticated 19th-century food could be.”
Take Marshall’s cucumber ice cream, which used cucumbers, lemon peel, sugar, cream, pistachios and vanilla. The concoction was frozen in one of Marshall’s signature cucumber molds. So was Marshall’s duck ice cream, which called for foie gras, cayenne pepper, aspic and one of her molds, complete with realistic glass eyes. She even made ice cream using asparagus—and encouraged people to buy her patented, five-minute ice cream freezer to make it themselves.
Before Marshall, says Day, elaborate dishes were mainly cooked by male chefs who were bred and trained in Europe. Marshall’s work spread those techniques to women and changed the way food was prepared and served. In your kitchen, you likely feel many of her influences today, like her campaign for farm-to-table food, her encouragement of technology like ice cream machines, and the use of ice cream cones (she published the first known recipe in 1888).
But World War I nearly killed off Marshall’s legacy—and the world’s taste for finicky, extravagant food—for good. “It was food that suited [a] Victorian world,” says Day. Instead of laboring in kitchens, the women Marshall trained found themselves on the battlefield, where they worked as nurses, or performing wartime tasks on the homefront.
After the war, these women—and the soldiers returning home after years of military rations—stopped cooking Marshall’s elaborate dishes. “The last thing they wanted was an ice cream molded in the form of a pair of courting doves or a cauliflower,” says Day.
There was another reason Marshall fell out of fashion: the economic and technological changes that made servants obsolete after World War I. The complexity of her dishes often required a fully staffed kitchen, but as things like refrigerators and vacuum cleaners made caring for a house easier, middle-class women reduced and eventually eliminated the army of maids and cooks that were once required to staff a middle-class home.
Eventually, simpler food came into vogue, and Marshall’s name faded from memory. But given the creativity of her dishes—and her pioneering use of branding, marketing and culinary education—maybe it should be better remembered.
“She was really quite remarkable,” says Day. “Her energy was extraordinary.”