Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

A Cook in Colonial Africa

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Baroness von Blixen's House, Kenya

Esa nearly drops the wine bottle, all because of colonial British ideas about propriety in cooking and dining.

That’s from an unforgettable scene in the film, “Out of Africa,” epitomizing the British way with food in their colonies. And their focus on the cooks, mostly male, who worked for them.

Baroness von Blixen

Meryl Streep, as Baroness Karen von Blixen (Isak Dinesen), insists that Esa wear white gloves while serving at table. And in the kitchen, her cook Kamante immerses his wooden spoons in puddings and sauces more suited to the damp cold of Denmark or England. But he doesn’t seem to mind, for he happily recounts his life with the Baronness in a quaint, handwritten book, Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa (collected by Peter Beard, with photographs and captions by Isak Dinesen).

Cooking in Africa presented quite a challenge to nearly all early European settlers and colonialists. An examination of some of the cookbooks produced during those colonial days reveals very, very few recipes celebrating any of the staples found in traditional African cooking.

Most of the cookbooks published tended to come from British settlers and enclaves. To read them, unless you knew they’d been published in Zimbabwe or Kenya, you’d never know that by perusing the recipes. The occasional curry recipe appears, and occasionally so does a local dish, like the West African Stew recipe included below. And that is highly unusual.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

However, strict rules applied to the hiring and keeping of cooks, as the following statement from E. G. Bradley’s A Household Book for Tropical Colonies (1939) suggests. The tome of the passage reflects the attitude held by many of the settlers toward the “natives”:

“The most competent cook will need a good deal of coaching before you are sure he can be trusted to do things as you like them done, without constant reminding and correction.

1.  He must: (a) Keep his kitchen scrubbed and the towels and oven cloths washed daily.
(b) Boil the drinking water thoroughly in a clean kettle, and pour it into sacks to cool, one each night. Sacks should be washed out frequently with coarse salt, cold water, and a few crystals of potassium permanganate.

(c) Boil the milk, keeping saucepan, cooling-basin, and straining muslin spotless.

(d) Keep his tins for tea, coffee, crumbs, fat, salt, etc., clean and covered. He must not store his own treasures among the food.

(e) Keep his cap and apron clean. Don’t employ a boy who is not clean. Good boys are most fastidious about their hands. A persistently odorous boy must be dismissed if he does not respond to frequent baths with carbolic soap.

2.   A good cook should be able to make bread, soup stock and a good white sauce at least; to cook vegetables carefully (no soggy over-cooked potatoes and cabbage!); to roast meat so that it is brown on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside, and not greasy; to understand the method of making:

(a) Cake; i.e. cream butter and sugar.(b) Scones and pastry; i.e. rub fat into flour.

(c) Batter; i.e. make a hole in the flour.

(d) Brown soups and sauce; i.e. fry an onion in fat.

(e) White soups and sauces; melt butter, add flour, etc.; boil an onion in milk.

He should also be able to devise a variety of breakfasts, and to make good coffee and tea.

This is the foundation of a good cook. If you can find a boy who understands two-thirds of the above, take him on and gratefully set about bringing the other third up to standard. When he knows that much he will be able to follow the briefest in more elaborate dishes.”

From the sound of it, Baroness von Blixen could consider herself lucky with Esa and Kamante.

You have to hand it to Mrs. Bradley; she does include African recipes, unlike many other cookbook authors and compilers of the times. That said, the spicing needs some beefing up for the African palate in her version of West African Stew.

WEST AFRICAN STEW

Garden Eggs

A meat stew with tomatoes, okros [sic], and garden eggs* [Solanum aethiopicum] is made as follows in West Africa:

Boil the meat until it is tender, add onions, garden eggs, okros, salt, and pepper. When the vegetables are cooked, they are taken out and mashed, and returned to the stew. Serve with cassava boiled and mashed.

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*For more about Garden Eggs, see the World Vegetable Center’s comments.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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