More Awful Cookery

Soyer's Paper-Bag CookerySoyer’s Paper-Bag Cookery

Submitter: According to Nicholas Soyer, the method of paper-bag cookery “has made a great furor in England,” and, despite initial setbacks (“the paper got burnt, and soon afterwards it exploded”), is perfect for cooking nearly everything, except for “macaroni or kindred Italian pastes.”  Various recipes for things like mutton stew are interspersed with weird narratives in which the testy author tells people to just “paper bag it” whenever they want cooking advice.  I’ve included a sample recipe for mutton stew, the cover, and a strange excerpt for your awful library books viewing pleasure!

Holly: The submitter is from a public research library associated with a major university.  That’s not the worst place for this book.  Sadly, though, it is also available in a multitude of public libraries around the country.  It’s interesting and quirky…but as part of a regular collection I’ll take the leap and call it an awful library book.

The Bag and the Bachelor

Economical stew


  1. OMG – maybe this is where Grandma got her pie recipe. My grandmother had a plum pie that she baked in a paper bag. Until one time the bag caught fire! That ended that tradition. This brought back memories.

  2. This is actually a perfectly legitimate cooking method; the French term is “en papillote”

  3. Reminds me of these two women I saw on a talk show in the 90s who had developed a method of cooking using the dishwasher. (Wrap the food heavily in foil, place in dishwasher, turn dishwasher on….)

  4. With the way paper bags are made now, you want to be careful to purchase food grade bags or paper (available at cooking supply stores). The chemicals and/or plastic in today’s paper grocery bags can be bad for you and can be very flammable.

  5. “Grease the bag well.” Oooohhh, nothin’ quite so appetizing (or flammable) as a greasy paper bag! Mmmmm, food with bits of paper bag stuck to it, yummo! rofl!

  6. Hi nanners,

    That’s what they used to call undergrads at private schools in England. I don’t think they’d do it now, however. 🙂

  7. Priceless. Surely P.G. Wodehouse was moonlighting with this one? ;-D

    Nanners, on the offchance you’re genuinely puzzled, ‘fags’ are younger students who serve as dogsbodies for older students at English public schools. Roald Dahl mentions his experience of the custom in ‘Boy’.

  8. @nanners: Well, he IS a bachelor in 1911; that could very well be the reason. 🙂

  9. This and the dishwasher comment reminded me of “Manifold destiny : the one! the only! guide to cooking on your car engine! by Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller.” Cook your meals on the car’s engine while you drive. I’ve never tried this, but there’s a 2008 revised and updated version out, so it resonates with some cooks.

  10. I’m with Mary Ann–I’d wouldn’t use a regular grocery bag. I’m always interested that no matter how odd a book, some people must support it to disagree.

  11. @Ajay–That doesn’t help, I don’t know what “dogsbodies” are, either. I feel so very American.

    Actually, I’m not sure why you would word that as though you didn’t believe they could really be confused. Even with all the classic English books I’ve read, I’ve only seen it as meaning a cigarette. (Unless what you say is correct, because I have read that book, but I have no recollection of it. It has been over a decade, after all.)

  12. Soyer was an important figure in the history of French and British cooking, one of his great admirers being Elizabeth David, and this technique, as others have pointed out, is far from dated.
    I don’t think it qualifies as awful, unless readers want nothing but glossy cookery books ‘written’ by Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay et l

  13. dogsbody: a person who carries out menial tasks for others; drudge.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Brits, but I believe in the academic context they mostly carried books and ran errands for older students. They also underwent a fair amount of what we would now call hazing, some of it sexual in nature, which may be why fag later came to mean gay.

  14. “Fags” were a common British upper class private school tradition. See on Wikipedia under “Fagging”:

    While totally immature, I’m inclined to the obviously incorrect modern interpretation. The title and subtitle of the story take on a couple of whole new meanings!!

    Also, anything which seriously uses “Cookery” as a word is in need of a review for age. “Cooking” has been the standard for some time now and I remember Sanford Berman complaining how long it took the LOC to change its subject heading from “cookery” to “cooking”.

  15. This book is digitized and in the public domain, through Google Books. If for some reason anyone actually wants to try one of these recipes…

  16. I didn’t know about the ‘fag’ term…but then, I only recalled the ‘dogsbody’ term from watching a British-made TV show I like. I had to look it up the first time myself.

  17. @Tom – As pointed out, paper bags aren’t as environmentally sound as they were back then. Today’s paper bags could likely kill you. Or at least make you very ill if you try to cook in them. You have to go out and buy special paper bags just for cooking.

    Cooking technology itself has changed since then too. Heck, things just vary from stove to stove. I baked a bread today that was suppose to take anywhere from 50 to 55 minutes at 375. Well, after 40 minutes it was nearly burnt. So if that can happen with a modern recipe made for a modern stove, imagine the trouble a recipe from 1911 would bring you when done on a modern stove.

    Now, if someone were to do an update of this book, testing the recipes, searching for where one can buy cooking grade paper bags, etc, that would be completely different.

  18. My grandmother had a ‘brown bag apple pie’ recipe which was quite good – most people I meet these days (younger than 30…) say “Brown bag?” like what’s that??

    I actually like the older cookbooks, since I make everything myself and don’t use packaged anything (which a lot of “modern” cookbooks call for) I’m going to look for this book on Amazon!

  19. Rather than awful, I think this book simply qualifies as historical. Although few people would be using a grocery bag to cook meat today, cooking fish in parchment paper is a way to make it very flavorful and moist. I also still use those Reynold’s cooking bags for pot roasts once in a while. And that glaze for chicken sounds rather good, even without the skewers and paper bag.

    “Faggot” is also a term for bundles of wood. In English “public” (i.e., private) schools, one of the undergraduate’s responsibilities was to make sure the fires were lit in the upperclassmen’s rooms in the morning, they had to carry the wood bundles, hence another source of the term. “Fag” is also English slang for cigarette.

  20. My mother’s been cooking roasts with all the fixings in plastic cooking backs since the early 1970’s, so this technique is really not that dated. Just the terminology and tools are dated. The idea of greasing up a paper bag and putting it on the broiler makes me want to stand by the stove with a fire extinguisher.

    I find the little story charming. I especially love the “fag” comment as it brings up so many double entendres NOW. (Ex. Fag = gay person, Fag = cigarette, Faggot = bundle of sticks, Faggot = a type of lace. And the fact that he says, “He’s never cooked since he was a fag at Beaumont.” which I can’t decide if it means he used to cook and doesn’t now, or never has cooked ever.

    I love these turn of the last century cookery books. I have two versions of the New Settlement Cookbook, and most of the recipes in my 1915 version start, “Melt some fat in a spider.” I had to go look that one up. It’s a frying pan on legs so you can put it over the open fire.

  21. The author comes across as such a likable fellow. If I were writing a book, I think I’d leave out the parts where I snap at people who come to me for help and then tell them to get lost.

  22. “I’m always interested that no matter how odd a book, some people must support it to disagree.”

    For that reason, things are never boring here at ALB. 🙂

  23. Every Christmas my boss gives everyone some food to take home, including a ham that’s meant to be cooked in a paper bag (also included). My wife just cooks it in the oven without the bag. And if I can trust Ray Bradbury on this, paper doesn’t catch on fire until 451 F, so as long as the cooking temperature is quite a bit below that, we should be safe about the bag bursting into flames, right?
    (And I’ve only heard the term “dogsbody” from the Sex Pistols, so thanks for the definition.)

  24. Rummaging through the back posts here, and – if this book weren’t available in PDF format via the Internet Archive & Google Books, I would absolutely have bought a copy. Hard copies are not cheap! And, as noted by other posters, cooking in paper/parchment is hardly a failed idea.
    My rules of thumb on this would be: 1) Keep if the library has clients that might appreciate/use the book; and 2) If Elizabeth Davis was a fan and you have to weed it, sell it online to a cooking geek. Or put it in the specially priced/vintage section in your Friends of the Library sale.
    In my neighborhood, there’s an entire store devoted to food books ( – I have no connection with them whatsoever, except living nearby). There is a market for these delights – exploit it for your library’s benefit!

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