In 1859, George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers and a writer of some imagination as well as artistic skill, published “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station” in India. Illustrated with forty drawings, or the “plates” in question, Atkinson’s fictitious account of life in a British colonial enclave proves highly entertaining as well as instructive on a number of levels.
Atkinson drew forty pictures, each “plate” representing various aspects of life in nineteenth-century British India, with brief commentaries surrounding each drawing.
Since our chief interest here lies with the food and the cooking thereof, Atkinson’s arrangement of his forty plates — possibly in order of importance to him — rendered “Our Cook Room” as number thirty-four (34) out of forty, with other food-related chapters ( 36. “Our Pig-Sticking,” 37. “Our Garden”, and 38. “Our Farm Yard.” Interestingly enough, number 39 is “Our Wedding” …).
As for the Cook Room, Atkinson’s description reveals a lot about the physical set-up, as well as the English mind-set:
Do we, in our exile, have all these things? [Typical orderly English kitchen from back home.] Are our cooks plump, and red-faced, and brawny? Are our kitchens the scenes of spotless purity, and our grates radiant with the gleam of the blazing coal? Are our dishes and our cups ranged with symmetrical exactitude? and is uniformity and precision the characteristic of our culinary arrangements? I trow not — I rather think not.
Look into that Oriental kitchen, if your eyes are not instantly blinded with the smoke, and if your sight can penetrate into the darkness, enter that hovel, and witness the preparation of your dinner. The table and the dresser, you observe, are Mother Earth; …
Observe the kitchen range, I beseech you ; a mud contraption, with apertures for the reception of charcoal, upon which repose pans of native mould, in which the delicacies are cooked. …
The aspects of the Eastern kitchen is not inviting, nor are its inmates, in their outer man, objects of alluring attractiveness; but sit you at your mahgony, and taste the labour of their hands, and whoever questions that dishes delicious and mouth-watering can be dressed by an Eastern cook, let him come at once to Kabob [fictional name for “Our Station”], and we will prove to him what really good things can be got at “Our Station.”
Atkinson’s words confirm a general tendency found in many of the memsahibs’ cookbooks of the time, which instruct the British housewife in India not to look into her kitchen for fear of feeling repulsed by the dirt and the closeness of the cooking to the earth …
© 2009 C. Bertelsen