Mrs. Beeton Goes to India

Book of Household ManagementEnglish women going out to colonial India packed cookbooks in their steamer trunks. Among the many possible tomes available, Mrs. Beeton’s brick-sized Book of Household Management,[1] took up little room but it packed a powerful wallop on lives. Valuable not only for the food and the ties to home, the Book of Household Management also included much medical advice, valuable to those living in isolated stations without medical help nearby. Even today, Where There is No Doctor and an updated copy of the PDR (Physicians Desk Reference) are de rigueur for people working in development in the bush.[2]

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton jumped on the speeding curry bandwagon by including a few curry recipes and one for a curry powder touted by Dr. William Kitchiner[3] in The Cook’s Oracle. According to Burnett and Saberi,[4] her “Curried Salmon” recipe probably originated in Dr. Riddell’s Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book (1856/57 – the watershed year of the Sepoy Mutiny). By the 1888 edition, Mrs. Beeton (actually her editors, as she died of childbed fever not long after publishing her cookbook) shared information about Indian servants and their habits, mostly derogatory and based on conjecture, rumor, and assumptions taken from memsahibs living in India.

But Mrs. Beeton’s wasn’t the only book at the memsahibs’ sides. A whole “spate” of such cookbooks, many geared specifically toward the Anglo-Indian housewife. appeared later in the nineteenth century. Very few of these women cooked, even if they came from a middle-class background in England. And the story of how they interacted with their Indians cooks, mostly male, makes for fascinating reading. Various commentators[5] other than Burnett and Saberi view these books as chock-full of clues about English imperial power, the creation of the Other, and national identity, both English and Indian.

Whatever the conclusion, the tale of the British in India holds keys to the universal story of colonization.

Here’s Mrs. Beeton’s curry powder:

INDIAN CURRY-POWDER, founded on Dr. Kitchener’s Recipe.

449. INGREDIENTS.–1/4 lb. of coriander-seed, 1/4 lb. of turmeric, 2 oz. of cinnamon-seed, 1/2 oz. of cayenne, 1 oz. of mustard, 1 oz. of ground ginger, 1/2 ounce of allspice, 2 oz. of fenugreek-seed.

Mode. — Put all the ingredients in a cool oven, where they should remain one night; then pound them in a mortar, rub them through a sieve, and mix thoroughly together; keep the powder in a bottle, from which the air should be completely excluded.

Note. — We have given this recipe for curry-powder, as some persons prefer to make it at home; but that purchased at any respectable shop is, generally speaking, far superior, and, taking all things into consideration, very frequently more economical.

[1] Published in 1861 by Isabella Beeton, the famous name of the ubiquitous “Mrs. Beeton’s.” See my previous post about Mrs. Beeton.

[2] Both books enabled me to care for our son while we lived in certain developing countries. The PDR once saved his life, when a doctor prescribed a dosage more fit for an elephant than for a four-year-old child. Checking the PDR confirmed my fears that the dosage seemed excessive.

[3] Beeton spelled it “Kitchener” in her book.

[4] David Burnett and Helen Saberi. The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks and Curry Books (Prospect Books, 2008).

[5] One of these many commentators is Alison Blunt, with her “Imperial geographies of home: British domesticity in India, 1886 – 1925.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24: 421 – 440, 1999.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


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