Safari Cooking: The Cook (III)

Market in colonial Africa

Unlike John Tinney McCutcheon, who in spite of holding attitudes typical of the times, managed to convey his admiration of his safari cook Abdullah, Hilda A. Moffat let loose with both barrels about her safari cook. Apparently, he also served as her regular cook and she knew him well. Her cringe-worthy comments turned up in a magazine (The Cornhill Magazine, published in 1907):

Arrived in camp, this culinary Crichton would from among the throng of porters and loads rout out his kitchen box, with the saucepans and frying-pans of his calling strapped on top. Himself commonly marched brandishing the kitchen kettle. While his subordinate collected the kitchen-range, our chef helped to unravel the limp convolutions of green canvas, or lent a hand with the tent ropes. In circumstances that would have rendered the hardiest English cook a victim to dementia, a meal of sorts was successfully cooked and served with sufficient rapidity to keep us tranquil. Reluctantly, prophetic of chronic dyspepsia, I was forced to admit the creature’s usefulness. Time inured us somewhat to the atrocities he compelled us to swallow. As Swahili cooks went he was no worse than other people’s; there have even been awful moments when I have secretly admitted that he was better. He was in our service for years. That we survived his ministrations, and that only one of us is now seriously disabled, is the strongest testimony to the original strength of our constitutions that I have ever been able to muster. His horizon was incredibly limited. One morning, when on march, we received a gift of celery, and as fresh vegetables were beyond rubies, we brooded half the forenoon in joyful anticipation of its succulence. But at lunch- time no celery appeared. Anxious questioning resulted in an outburst of jabbering around the kitchen fire, and we were offered eventually a small heap of something resembling spinach at the bottom of a tin soup-dish. Our genius had cooked the celery tops and thrown away the stalks. One of the wretched man’s worst points was the difficulty of being suitably angry with him …

Reading this points out the vast cultural differences existing between some of  the British colonialists and the people who worked for them. Because of the danger of gastrointestinal infections, Africans tend to cook all their vegetables. Greens in particular are highly valued, and well they should be, given their nutritional power.

With hindsight, and a lot more knowledge of nutrition, we today could venture to say that the cook treated the celery exactly as could be expected.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


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