What does "cooking" mean?
It means the knowledge of Medea, and of Circe, and of Calypso,
and of Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Sheba. It means
the knowledge of all herbs, and fruits, and balms, and spices; and
of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves, and savory
in meats, it means carefulness, and inventiveness, and
watchfulness, and willingness, and readiness of appliance, it
means the economy of your great-grandmothers, and the science of
modern chemists; it means much tasting, and no wasting, it means
English thoroughness, and French art, and Arabian hospitality, and
it means, in fine, that you are to be perfectly and always
The way to rear up children, (to be just,)
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
It is not Victorian fancy to define the word lady as loaf-giver or loaf-keeper, but simply an applicable definition of the Anglo-Saxon, and it is not by chance that the second most popular word for describing a person of the female gender in English is somehow inextricably linked to the keeping, preparing and giving of food. In farming communities, how the harvest was kept, prepared, and portioned out was just as important as to how it was sown, grown and gathered. What is the point of a large glut of grain if there is no-one in the village with the skill to keep it well, cook it and portion it out so that none are hungry?
And, indeed in Tudor farmhouses a good "huswife" was indispensable. Her knowledge of how to keep and prepare food meant financial security (no waste), good nutrition for the household (needed for the hard labour of the working day), medicine (herbals and cookbooks were one and the same at this period) and pleasure and conviviality (she prepared food for feast days and made the comforting familiarity of the daily bread and beer). This period of history is often termed the "golden age" of English house-wifery; where farms were like mini-kingdoms, self-governing and self-sufficient; the housewife being the farm's co-manager, its queen. In the eighteenth century, a far more practical, if nonetheless eccentric, man than Ruskin, William Cobbett, stated that a good bread-making, beer-making wife, could save a man £100 per year! Although I'm glad Cobbett did his sums and found that a good woman's price was roughly the same as rubies, I prefer Ruskin's more romantic estimation of a practical woman's worth.
And when Ruskin talks of cooking as an application of ancient knowledge he is not only referencing traditional forms of English house-wifery but what used to be called wisdom;
and of Helen, and of Rebekah, and of the Queen of Shebaa characteristic which is personified in the Bible as female. I think that Chesterton gave a good definition of wisdom as something which is not learned but acquired (I'm wildly paraphrasing here), it takes practise and patience to be wise. Wisdom is knowledge on a slow burner, it is often mixed with natural instinct and is always judiciously applied. So Ruskin's home "cook" has similar qualities to Barret Browning's "mother"; a giving woman, with a loving, natural instinct applying her knowledge judiciously. It is an ideal of womanhood, yes, but an ideal which does not necessarily imply conformity of thought and practice, and therefore one which I believe can be very modern. I'd like to be this woman.