At the extravagant dinner parties in Victorian England, the wealthy of their country delighted their colleagues with beautiful performances of sumptuous dishes. An example menu might start with carrot soup, oxtail soup, and two types of fish, followed by mutton, brie, oyster patties, and rabbit fillets. Next came turkey, beef, ham and chicken. For the third course, roast hare, duck, potatoes, mushrooms, vol-au-vent stuffed with preserved fruit and fluffy meringue floating in custard.
The dessert course was followed by a culinary showstopper: ice cream. The frosty stuff was often piped, shaped and artistically decorated. And there was Agnes B. Marshall, the Guruin of the frozen treats from the 1
Marshall wrote two cookbooks devoted exclusively to "ice cream" – ice cream, sorbets (containing alcohol), mousses and refrigerated casseroles. On the pages of the books were detailed recipes, which also served as useful advertisements for the many products that Marshall marketed and sold. Readers were told to freeze their ice cream in equipment they patented, mold their desserts into their prescribed shapes, spice up their puddings with Marshall's syrup, and color their preparations with Marshall's food coloring. Long before Rachael Ray sold non-stick cookware and Martha Stewart had her own wine label, Marshall turned her name into a household brand.
She was not the only Victorian woman to run a successful business, but her female peers were often inherited from a deceased husband, food historian Peter Brears explains mental floss. The "Queen of Ices," as Marshall was called, sat on the throne of a self-made empire-and that made her, as Brears says, "extraordinary."
Little is known about Marshall's early life, but she seems to have come from relatively modest beginnings. She was born in 1855 in Walthamstow, Essex, England, as Agnes Bertha Smith. Her father was an employee. In 1878 she married Alfred Marshall and they had four children. Marshall's husband gives us one of the few known references to her culinary education. In an 1886 interview he stated that "Mrs. Marshall has completed a thorough cooking degree since childhood and practiced with famous chefs in Paris and Vienna. "The details of their education, however, are largely puzzling. According to Brears, Marshall "suddenly" appears as a charismatic force in London's culinary scene.
In 1883 she opened a cooking school in the capital and published four cookbooks: The Book of Ices (1885), Mrs. A.B. Marshall's Cookbook (1888), Mrs. A.B. Marshall's Larger Cookbook with Additional Recipes (1890) and Fancy Ices (1894). She also launched a weekly magazine entitled The Table ran a domestic employment agency and traveled through England to give cooking demonstrations. The audience worshiped her.
"[F] or for two hours she has fully absorbed the serious attention of some 600 people while teaching and entertaining them at the same time," reported The Times in 1887.
Marshall was a chef with various talents who could prepare anything from roast turkey to vegetable curry to apple tarts. But in the realm of frozen desserts her ingenuity shone – as did her business sense.
Until the middle of the Victorian era, ice cream was an expensive delicacy, for ice cream was hard to come by. Only those rich enough to own ice houses – deposits with cool, underground chambers – could enjoy frozen meals all year round. In the mid-19th century, England began importing ice cream from the US and Norway, making the chilled goods more accessible to the upper middle classes. A wider population could now make ice cream at home, and Marshall was ready to seize the opportunity. Her books were aimed at moderately wealthy housewives who did not boast of the luxury of a large kitchen staff, but still wanted to turn their desserts into eye-catching showcases as Victorian fashion demands.
Chocolate, tangerine, cherry, peach, almond and even lobster, just to name a few. She also gave detailed instructions for the presentation of the ice. Pineapple ice should be frozen in the form of a pineapple; Peach ice, shaped into a group of peaches; Coffee mousse, made into a geometric tower and wrapped in biscuit creamed asparagus spears – all using Marshall branded forms.
To prepare these delicious dishes, home cooks needed an ice cream maker. The machines were patented for the first time in the early 19th century and consisted of a metal container placed in a wooden tray filled with ice and salt. The cooks poured the egg mixture into the metal container and mixed it with a paddle, aerating the mixture and creating a smooth, velvety dessert instead of a cold, rocky lump. Hoping to improve on earlier models, Marshall patented their own ice machine.
"Instead of the old ice machines, which were tall and narrow, they developed one that was very flat and wide," says Brears. "And that meant that the freeze mix had much greater surface contact with the ice bucket and frozen faster."
Marshall also patented a series of "ice caves" – metal crates in larger containers that were filled with a salted mixture to keep the dishes refrigerated until ready to serve. Some of her experiments were pretty avant-garde. In an edition of The Table from 1901, she suggested freezing ice in place with liquid air at dinner parties and proclaiming that "table additions are amazing". Today, more than a century after Marshall issued her recommendation, Ice Cream parlors used liquid nitrogen to make "ultra-smooth" confections.
In the early 1900s, after years of cooking, piling and charming, Marshall began to suffer from health problems. A terrible blow occurred in 1904 when she was thrown from a horse during a riding lesson. She never fully recovered and died on July 29, 1905, just three weeks before her fiftieth birthday.
Despite what she did at a time when few women worked outside the home, Marshall is not known today. The lavish aesthetics she championed went out of fashion after the First World War, when the aristocrats began to sell their lands, and rigid class divisions began to fade. "There was a different rejection of Victorian excitement," says Brears. And Marshall, who once led the nation's culinary trends, was largely forgotten.
But with creativity and energy, Marshall had boosted her business on a foundation of frozen desserts.