The Poetry of Curry, or, a Traveler’s Tale

For numerous reasons, lately I’ve been indulging in one of my passions – cooking the food of the Indian sub-continent. I just ran across again William Makepeace Thackeray’s “A Poem to Curry,” quoted by nearly everyone who takes a stab at writing about the mystery of curry, and how it traveled to the nooks and crannies of the globe. And so I thought of several points I’d like to share, because curry epitomizes to me the very salient truth that cuisines grow through the concerted efforts of many and are owned by no one group in particular.

First, the poem.

Thackeray wrote this as part of his “Kitchen Melodies,” of which little seems to be available, but maybe some of you readers can enlighten me on that point.

Some sources suggest that Mr. Thackeray addressed the poem to his daughter, Mrs. Richmond Ritchie:

Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly half a pound,
And stews them in a pan until they’re brown’d.

What’s next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With curry-powder table-spoonfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for half an hour,
A lemon’s ready juice she’ll o’er it pour.

Then, bless her! Then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boil – and serves quite hot.
PS – Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind fish,
Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,
A dish for Emperors to feed upon.

William Makepeace Thackeray, ’A Poem to Curry’ (Punch, November 28, 1846)

Thackeray’s parents went out to India, where they lived in Calcutta (Kolkata), so Thackeray knew, and probably loved, curry. The most probable scenario, helpful in understanding how curry became so beloved of the British today, may indeed have occurred because British children snuck into the servants’ quarters, where they devoured the food, food with little resemblance to the typical British menu of the time.

The poet sang of curry in Vanity Fair, too, though perhaps not as admiringly as in his poem:

Now we have heard how Mrs. Sedley had prepared a fine curry for her son, just as he liked it, and in the course of dinner a portion of this dish was offered to Rebecca. “What is it?” said she, turning an appealing look to Mr. Joseph.

“Capital,” said he. His mouth was full of it: his face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling. “Mother, it’s as good as my own curries in India.”

“Oh, I must try some, if it is an Indian dish,” said Miss Rebecca. “I am sure everything must be good that comes from there.”

“Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing.

Rebecca had never tasted the dish before.

“Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley.

“Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.

“Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested.

“A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried. Mr. Sedley burst out laughing (he was a coarse man, from the Stock Exchange, where they love all sorts of practical jokes). “They are real Indian, I assure you,” said he. “Sambo, give Miss Sharp some water.

This talk of curry relates, yes, it does, to my curiosity about some British antecedents of various American dishes. The famous, and oft-quoted-dissected curry of Hannah Glasse comes to mind. In India, the British gained hegemony – that bandied-about word for power – around 1612. And British ships sailed all over the world.

Including to the Americas. Often. Carrying goods, spices, merchandise including slaves. Sea captains and sailors alike gained experience in many of the world’s ports, and that experience included food. Hints of this international commerce and dissemination of foods appear in cookbooks such The Virginia House-wife (1824) and The Carolina Housewife (1847).  Cayenne appeared copiously in Miss Leslie’s 1857 cookbook, Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book, confirming an obvious fact: spicy food was no stranger on either Britsh or American tables

More than any other influence, that spicy touch owed a lot to the myriad peoples traversing the globe, sharing their culinary discoveries over fires, on cookstoves, in hearths, and fireboxes in ships’ galleys.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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