A Dish (or Two) for Children in British Colonial Africa

Photo credit: Paul Jackson
In Thomson's Falls, Kenya, 1953 (Photo credit: Paul Jackson)

(A tribute to those women who endured the challenges of living in unfamiliar and far-flung places, raising their children without their extended families around. And cooking what they could.)

Sometimes it literally WAS a dog’s breakfast.

And mothers couldn’t do anything about it.

Feeding their children properly preoccupied those mothers who followed their English husbands to isolated outposts in Africa or India or China.

And rightly so. Yes.

Most mothers, no matter where they live (or when) pay strict attention to what their children eat, even if they’re not living in the Nairobi or Kampala or Delhi or Shanghai of the heyday of empire.

Photo credit: Robin Hutton
Mingo, a Beloved Dog of Childhood (Photo credit: Robin Hutton)

But an examination of several period cookbooks aimed at British settlers, mostly those in Africa, reveals some interesting suggestions about feeding children. And, to be honest, some of those suggestions seem just a little off kilter.

Actually, as the recipes unfold, page after page, one begins to wonder if perhaps the family dogs ate better than usual sometimes. Because surely the children found a way to sneak scraps and slip spoonfuls of noisome food under the table to those eager panting tongues.

And who wouldn’t do the same? At least sometimes? Be honest now … call up those memories, OK?

Take this concoction from The Bulawayo Cookery Book, by Mrs N. Chataway, described as “Zimbabwe’s first household guide.” [Note:  Zimbabwe used to be known as Rhodesia.] The author herself submitted this particular recipe, among the many recipes in this community cookbook first published in 1909, with the goal of raising funds for the New English Church in Bulawayo.

Children’s Dinner Dish
Mrs. Norman Chataway

Grease a baking dish and line the bottom with slices of bread spread with dripping, over this put a layer of raw meat cut in pieces and dipped in a mixture of salt, pepper and any seasoning liked, over this place a layer of scalded onions in slices, and repeat these layers until the dish is full, having bread as the top layer, spread on the upper side with dripping. Pour over enough stock (water may be used but stock is nicer) to thoroughly soak the bread, cover the dish and bake in a moderate oven for an hour or until the meat is done. Uncover the dish for last quarter or half hour in order that the surface may get nicely browned and crisp. Cooked rice or macaroni may be substituted for part of the onion.

Photo credit: Paul Jackson
Family Home in Tanganyika (Photo credit: Paul Jackson)

Oh, dear … looking at this dish through the eyes of a child, well, the onions, you know, don’t sound very nice.

Mrs. A. R. Barnes, in her The Colonial Household Guide, first published in 1890, and reprinted in 2006 with a much catchier title — Where the Lion Roars, provides a recipe especially for children, too.

Child’s Breakfast or Supper

Squeeze a couple of large baked potatoes out of their skins onto a large soup plate; mash them with a fork until they are fine and free from lumps. Break over it a lightly boiled egg, add a little pepper and salt, and some fine bread crumbs. Pour over it when well mixed a cupful of good gravy or beef tea.

A glance at Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) shows that she included a recipe for Potato Rissoles, sounding suspiciously like the ingredients in this colonial potato recipe. (And probably derived from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families [1845].) Fortunately, Mrs. Beeton (and Miss Acton) recommended frying the lot in small balls once mixed. That a child could live with.

As for the “Specimen Meals” listed at the end of The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide (12 editions), children clearly had no say in the matter.

Here’s one day’s menu for small children aged 1 to 2 years of age:

1 to 2 teaspoons porridge and milk
½ egg
wholemeal bread and butter
cup of milk

chopped roast or boiled mutton
sieved cabbage, jacket potatoes
fruit fool and rusk

parsley sandwich
rusk and seedless jam
milk or milky cocoa

Granted, we don’t know if mothers actually fed their children any of the things mentioned in the cookbooks. But if one were to guess, the meat-and-bread dish and the potato dish both sound like fare a child might eat on Cook’s day off.

And the dogs, too. Maybe. If they were lucky.

Photo credit: Paul Jackson
A Mother and a Healthy, Happy Baby (Photo credit: Paul Jackson)

Future posts hopefully will include information about what children and adults actually ate in colonial Africa, gleaned from memoirs, diaries, menus, and letters.

(A big “Thank you” to Paul Jackson for sharing his lovely family photos from Kenya and Urambo, Tanganyika [now Tanzania].)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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