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Posts tagged ‘Calvin Trillin’

Readymade

Every summer my mother and I make preserves. We have two staples – Christmas chutney and red pepper relish – which, occasionally, we’ve augmented with piccalilli, boerenjongens (currants in brandy), and pickled pears. When we started this more than a decade ago, chutney- and jam-making was seen as the sort of thing that grandmothers did, and this despite the long tradition of preserving and pickling in South Africa’s fruit growing regions.

More recently, though, preserving has become fashionable. Recipes for chutneys abound on hipster blogs and cooler recipe sites; Punk Domestics has an enormous following; and even Girls features a maker of ‘artisanal mustard’ (Charlie’s profoundly irritating girlfriend, Audrey). This, though, is part of a wider trend: a rediscovery of domesticity, particularly – although not exclusively – among young women in their 20s and 30s. The existence of a café specialising in crafts – Drink, Shop, Do – in London’s Kings Cross, points to the numbers of people who are part of this trend.

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Their enthusiasm for cooking-from-scratch, sewing, knitting, gardening, and other domestic activities is the product of a range of factors (many of them explored in Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity (2013)). These include the evolution of feminism to reclaim work once dismissed as feminine and, thus, unimportant; a shift in values as Generation Y attempts to carve out new, meaningful forms of employment; and the 2008 financial crash. Austerity has played out culturally: in a new interest in mending and making-do.

Most obviously, a willingness to make ketchup and bread and mayonnaise is part of a backlash against Big Food: as revelations around, among other things, food contamination, the exploitation of workers, and cruelty to animals continue to emerge, there has been a gradual turning-away from processed food. This, though, is nothing new (there was a similar whole food movement in the 1970s), nor particularly prevalent beyond the affluent middle classes.

Unsurprisingly, this backlash against the readymade has been accompanied by a fascination for the post-war cooking which relied heavily on processed food. The Internet abounds with lists of appalling recipes containing instant jelly, fizzy soft drinks, and canned meat. Nigella Lawson devoted a section to ‘trashy’ food in Nigella Bites, explaining that she defines ‘trashy’ as any food relying on at least one readymade ingredient: Maryland cookies in her chocolate and lime cheesecake, for instance.

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There is some justification for this ridicule – so many of these dishes range from the bizarre to the mildly pornographic. Adding lime jelly to tinned tuna, or turning Vienna sausages into fondue, suggests that some home economists employed by food companies in the 1950s and 1960s really did have cloth palates.

But it’s worth taking enthusiasm for the readymade seriously. In his excellent – and deeply funny – blog Caker Cooking, Brian Francis cooks his way through the community, school, and church recipe books constituted of the kind of everyday dishes made by, largely, middle-class families. (And although his blog is Canadian, I’ve encountered similar pamphlets and recipes in South Africa and Australia.) This is his definition of caker cooking (and he is being satirical, so his third point is not meant to offend):

1. A ‘magic’ ingredient. We cakers love to think we’ve discovered some sort of short cut. Usually, this short cut requires a can opener.
2. Ease. The recipe has to have as few steps and as few ingredients as possible.
3. Frugality. There’s nothing more wasteful than spending good money on food.

Indeed, it is for these reasons that processed food held such appeal to women – many of them entering the workplace in greater numbers – from the middle of the twentieth century to the present: that this food is quick and easy to prepare, and it’s cheap. It’s difficult to imagine, now, the amount of labour that used to go into the preparation of food. And, as the food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe has noted over and over again, tinned food is considerably cheaper than fresh.

Calvin Trillin is one of the few food writers who recognises that the only way of describing honestly about how people eat is to acknowledge that processed food is integral to the way most of us cook. (Try cooking through a winter without tinned tomatoes.) That cream of mushroom soup is a vital ingredient in so many distinctive regional dishes; that Texas barbeque is served with cheap, white processed bread and that’s ok.

My point is that however wonderful it is that there has been a rediscovery and re-embrace of old-fashioned forms of cookery – and as one who makes her own granola, bakes her own bread, and who has dried her own tomatoes, I am part of this too – this movement is small, and one limited to those who have the time and resources to spend hours making pickles or fruit leather. Instead of arguing for a wholesale rejection of all forms of processed food, what we should focus on is ensuring that it is better: that it is healthier, properly labelled, and produced in humane, fair conditions.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 03.10.2012

Mexico’s small-scale maize farmers are under threat.

Tom Philpott considers the recent Stanford report on organic produce.

More reflection on the latest pro/anti-organics bunfight.

Water and meat consumption.

The history of the lunchbox.

Harvesting a climate disaster.

Chinese farmers in Russia.

A journey along the Silk Road helps to explain the genetic influence over food preference.

The science behind flavour combinations.

The names of pasta shapes. (Thanks, Mum!)

The Royal Society’s top twenty inventions in the history of food and drink.

The journey of a wheel of cheese, from Spain to New York.

Eating in Moscow.

The problem with TV cookery.

A socialist’s guide to drinking.

Re-imagining the ice cream shop.

In praise of buttermilk.

Three good things on a plate.

What it’s like being a chef in Silicon Valley.

The Zagat guide gets London badly wrong.

How to make bourbon salt.

A guide to African cuisine in Paris.

Ruth Bourdain remains at large.

Puddings made with berries.

The rise and rise of Peruvian cuisine.

Calvin Trillin on ceviche.

Food-based art.

Will Self on Garfunkel’s.

George Washington’s small beer.

Lebanese steak tartare.

Food future.

The Renaissance of Nigerian Cuisine.

Brooklyn Blackout Cake.

Seven things to do with apples.

Escher-inspired food art.

Fuck Yeah Biscuits.

What couscous to buy.

Eating fish in Greece.

Lausanne‘s weekend market.

A man drives across the US, using only bacon as currency.

The Onion on Hostess‘s bankruptcy.

Foodie Pseudery (11)

The best food writing knows not to take itself too seriously. Calvin Trillin is amazing precisely because he understands that his various food obsessions are just that: personal enthusiasms for food that others may not enjoy as much as he does. He knows and cares a great deal about food, but wears this expertise and enthusiasm lightly.

It’s with great sadness, then, that I must include Michael Pollan, one of my food heroes, in this series. He has written many sane, sensible things about food. But the following is neither sane nor sensible. It’s from an astonishingly humourless article published in the New York Times titled ‘The 36-Hour Dinner Party‘, in which Pollan describes a series of meals cooked in a wood-fired oven kept blazing over a day and a half. It is a pompous and self-important piece of writing: you’d be forgiven for thinking it was about a religious experience.

8:30 a.m. The core group reassembles in the backyard for breakfast. Mike has coaxed the fire in the oven back to life. I’m starting to think of the fire as a creature with its own moods and appetites; now it needs to be fed. Chad has kindled a second fire in the pit and is toasting slices of yesterday’s bread. Melissa, meanwhile, has prepped an unexpectedly intricate yet goat-free breakfast: in individual clay pots, she arranged sautéed porcini on a bed of blanched amaranth greens picked from Mike’s garden. Over that, she cracked an egg and drizzled some cream. The pots go into the oven for several minutes, and when they come out she gives each a dollop of green-tomato chutney and dusts them with dukkah, an Egyptian spice-and-nut blend. … One of the best bites of the weekend, if not of all time, is of a slice of Chad’s toast spread with Mike’s cheese and Jenny’s apricot jam and then liberally sprinkled with dukkah. It takes a village to make some toast, apparently, but this is one sublime piece of toast.

9:38 a.m. We’re still at the breakfast table when Mike starts pouring glasses of Vouvray to mark the 24 hours that have passed since we lighted the fire. By now, having shared so much eating and drinking and cooking, everyone feels comfortable enough not to have to talk; we’ve all entered the same psychological space.

Food Processes

A fortnight ago my mother and I devoted a day to our annual chutney making, and we spent the evening recovering from the inhalation of vinegar fumes, in front of the television. We watched the first episode of the new series of Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers. Being fans of Slater’s recipe books, we had high hopes, but these began to crumble when he remarked conspiratorially to the camera that ‘some people buy jars of pesto.’

We groaned. Of course, pesto out of a bottle is never going to be quite as amazing as pesto made freshly. (I’m not going to wade into the tiresome debate over whether pesto made in a food processor is better than that made with a pestle and mortar.) But it’s fine. Really: for a quick, warming supper, it’s absolutely delicious. And, as my father pointed out as he walked past to switch the kettle on, it’s great to be able to support businesses which train people and provide employment.

As an antidote to Slater’s preciousness, I read a couple of Calvin Trillin’s essays from Eating with the Pilgrims, a collection published in Penguin’s newish Great Food series (the one with the beautiful covers). Although he’s also a poet and journalist, Trillin is probably best known for his food writing in the New Yorker. His writing is clear, clever, and deeply sympathetic to others who, like him, love eating. Trillin tends not to write about food itself, but, rather about how people think about it, as he remarked in an interview: ‘I’m not interested in finding the best chilli restaurant in Cincinnati. I’m interested in Cincinnatians fighting about who has the best chilli.’

What I like about Trillin is that he writes about buffalo wings and barbeque with the same seriousness that other writers devote to stilton or cassoulet:

The sort of eating I’ve always been interested in is what I guess you’d call vernacular eating. It has something to do with a place. Buffalo chicken wings have something to do with Buffalo. The fact that people in Cincinnati have something they call authentic Cincinnati chilli, and seem unaware that people in the Southwest eat chilli, let alone Mexicans, and think that chilli is made by Macedonians and served on spaghetti, that’s interesting to me. Whether Skyline chilli is better than Empress chilli I don’t really care about.

This is Trillin on fried chicken:

Because a superior fried-chicken restaurant is often the institutional extension of a single chicken-obsessed woman, I realize that, like a good secondhand bookstore or a bad South American dictatorship, it is not easily passed down intact. Still, in sullen moments I blame these lamentable closings on the agribusiness corporations’ vertical integration of the broiler industry. In fact, in sullen moments I blame almost everything on the vertical integration of the broiler industry – the way some people trace practically any sort of mischief or natural disaster back to the Central Intelligence Agency, and some people, presumably slightly more sophisticated, blame everything on the interstate-highway program. If the civilisation really is about to crumble, everybody is entitled to his own idea of which is the most significant crack. Which brings us to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I urge you to read Trillin’s excellent cultural history of buffalo wings and his fantastic account of seeking the best barbequed mutton in Kentucky. My favourite essay, other than his celebration of Shopsin’s, the legendary-despite-its-best-efforts New York restaurant, is about boudin, a staple of Cajun cuisine which is, in its purest form, a kind of sausage made out of pork meat, rice, and liver. (I wish I could provide a link, but the New Yorker has an unfriendly unwillingness to open up its archives.)

These are not particularly sophisticated dishes, and they’re often produced with a heavy reliance on processed foods – pre-packaged seasonings, the inevitable Campbell’s mushroom soup – whose flavours become as important to the finished product as those elements which make boudin or buffalo wings unique. In fact, in between Slater’s snobbery and Trillin’s celebration of deliciousness is a useful way of thinking about what we mean by processed food.

We know that the cheapness and easy availability of processed food has been blamed, rightly, for facilitating a global obesity epidemic. (Even if the increasing prevalence of obesity can’t logically be described as an ‘epidemic’. Obesity isn’t really catching.) High in salt, preservatives, and calories, most processed food provides eaters with meals which are temporarily filling and satisfying, but without much beneficial nutritional content. In food deserts – areas where low incomes, and poor transport infrastructure and distribution networks make access to fresh food very difficult – it’s usually only processed food which is available at corner shops and discount supermarkets.

But, technically, most food that we eat – even ‘good’ food – is processed. I know that blogs have been criticised for simply listing the contents of bloggers’ fridges, but I’m doing this for a reason: with the exception of the eggs, lettuce, leeks, herbs, and cherries in my fridge, the rest of it is processed. This includes the milk and cream (nearly all dairy products are pasteurised and homogenised before they’re sold to the public), blackberry jam, sun dried tomatoes (laugh if you must), butter, Colman’s and Pommery mustard, mum’s and Mrs Ball’s chutney, salami, tomato paste, and the tube of sweetened chestnut puree.

By ‘processed food’ we mean food that is prepared in some way before it’s sold: from the most severely limited run of cured hams, to the strangest possible non-food imaginable. So it’s not all bad. In fact, I’m not sure that most of us would cope without processed food of some variety: I can’t buy raw milk in Cape Town, and I rely on tinned tomatoes and frozen peas. I am not about to make my own couscous, or knit my own yogurt, despite being politically left-wing.

We do, though, eat more processed food than ever before. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century as food production became increasingly industrialised, first in the United States and then in the rest of the world, our diets have changed. We eat more of those products which are difficult or time-consuming to prepare at home (bread, pasta), and mass production has made formerly expensive, ‘artisan’ items (Parmesan cheese, chocolate) cheaper and more readily available.

I think that that one of the reasons why I was surprised by Slater’s snobbery was because of the lengthy and often quite nostalgic descriptions of the processed food of the 1960s in his memoir Toast. We tend to associate the rise of processed food with the post-war boom: with bizarre recipes for spam fritters, and a hundred and one ways with Angel Delight. In the modernist 1950s, this was the sophisticated food of the future – the food of the newly prosperous middle classes. Michael Pollan remembers:

The general consensus seemed to be that ‘food’ – a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned – was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology. If not literally served in a pill, the meal of the future would be fabricated ‘in the laboratory out of a wide variety of materials,’ as one contemporary food historian predicted, including not only algae and soybeans but also petrochemicals. Protein would be extracted directly from fuel oil and then ‘spun and woven into “animal” muscle – long wrist-thick tubes of “fillet steak.”‘

By 1965, we were well on our way to the synthetic food future. Already the eating of readily identifiable plant and animal species was beginning to feel somewhat recherche, as food technologists came forth with one shiny new product after another: Cool Whip, the Pop-Tart, nondairy creamer, Kool-Aid, Carnation Instant Breakfast and a whole slew of eerily indestructible baked goods (Wonder Bread and Twinkies being only the most famous).

The appeal of cake mixes, tinned macaroni cheese, and, later, boil-in-the-bag meals was that these were quick, labour-saving dinners. As middle-class women entered the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, so eating habits adapted to new work patterns.

The backlash against processed food and industrialised agriculture of the 1970s – in the United States, the largely California-based counter-cuisine, for example – associated the mass production of food with environmental destruction and social inequality. (Poorer people tend to eat the worst processed food.) We’ve since begun to associate the idea of processed food with strange non-foods – with turkey twizzlers and cheese strings – rather than think of it as food which has been prepared in some way, and usually in large quantities, before being sold.

I know that this may seem like a fairly nitpicky point, but we need to acknowledge the extent to which we rely on processed food in order to feed ourselves. Most of us eat better and a greater variety of things because of the mass production of food. To my mind, the more pertinent question is not how we should prevent people from eating processed food, but, rather, how we can make this food better and healthier. Obviously, we need to teach people how to cook healthily – and we have to consider the relationship between eating patterns and the hours that people work. Middle-class foodies and other well-meaning campaigners around nutrition must realise that their anti-processed food stance is not only a kind of snobbery, but entirely impractical.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 08.06.2011

Hayibo covers the recent tension over vegetable exports in Europe.

Foreign Policy‘s theme for its May/June edition is food, and it’s fascinating. Lester Brown writes about the new geopolitics of food, and this amazing article shows how food explains the world.

Why are food prices at the mercy of bankers?

The Guardian has an excellent guide to the global food crisis.

Should the US government subsidise the growing of sweeteners?

The French government has banned the riot police from drinking alchohol with their meals. Daft.

On the origins of measuring the calorie content of food.

This fascinating infographic from the World Resources Institute charts global greenhouse gas emissions – agriculture is responsible for 13.8% of them, and loads of nitrous oxide and methane.

Penguin has just released its Great Food series: a collection of twenty short books each dedicated to the writing of great food writers.

‘The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul’. Nice.

Can you feed a family of four on £50 a week? I would have thought so.

Notes from Madras

Penguin has published a new series focussing on the best food writing of the past four hundred years. Titled Great Food, this collection of twenty slim volumes fillets and reduces the work of well-known writers – MFK Fisher, Eliza Acton, and Claudia Roden – as well as of (now) more obscure authors – William Verrall, Agnes Jekyll, and Gervase Markham –into a hundred pages each.

Last Saturday I bought Notes from Madras, a digest of Colonel Wyvern’s classic Culinary Jottings from Madras (first published 1878 and substantially revised in 1885). I confess that I’d heard neither of the Colonel nor of Jottings before reading a review of the series, and I am so pleased that I’ve discovered him. Elizabeth David wrote: ‘I should recommend anyone with a taste for Victorian gastronomic literature to snap up [Wyvern's recipes]. His recipes are so meticulous and clear that the absolute beginner could follow them, yet at the same time he has much to teach the experienced cook.’

Coralie Bickford-Smith's beautiful cover design for Notes from Madras

Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert (1840-1916) was an officer in the British Indian Army who began to write about Indian cooking while stationed in the subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century. First published in newspaper articles, he went on to author a series of recipe books and found a cookery school in London. The purpose of his writing was to demystify cooking in India for the white, middle-class memsahibs who travelled to India with their husbands. Not only does Jottings provide recipes and menus, but detailed, practical advice about setting up and stocking a kitchen and training a servant.

David is entirely correct when she suggests that Wyvern be used by inexperienced or unconfident cooks. His recipes describe simply and precisely the ingredients and methods that go into preparing a range of dishes: from macaroni cheese to curries. He makes sure to explain the principles behind cooking: his instructions for boiling and preparing potatoes run to six pages; there are twelve steps for making the perfect fritter. Long-winded, perhaps. But fool-proof? Definitely.

Jottings from Madras has a number of surprising features. For the contemporary reader, the most striking is Wyvern’s enthusiasm for parmesan cheese, basil, and minimally-cooked vegetables. His writing runs counter to all the things we believe about heavy, bland, and overcooked Victorian meals. Partly as a result of this, Wyvern’s views on Indian servants and cooks seem of place.  Although Jottings advises colonial wives to treat their cooks with patience and respect, and to address them directly – not via a butler – in whichever pidgin English was spoken in their region, he believes that the country’s indigenous people are fundamentally inferior to himself and other Europeans:

There can be no doubt that in our Ramasámy we possess admirable materials out of which to form a good cook. The work comes to him, as it were, of its own accord. But we should take heed lest he grow up at random, clinging affectionately to the ancient barbarisms of his forefathers. We should watch for his besetting sins, and root them out whenever they manifest themselves.

This paternalistic – racist, certainly – attitude towards ‘Ramasámy’, his typical Indian cook, helps, I think, to account for Wyvern’s views on Indian cuisine. In terms of recipes, the primary aim of Jottings from Madras is to teach and assist readers to cook the standard, heavily Francophile food popular in Europe during the period. The genius of the book is Wyvern’s practical approach to cooking northern European cuisine in hot, humid south Asian conditions where many ingredients on which French cooking relies were not freely available.

Wyvern was not unusual in his assertion that most Europeans in India would want to eat primarily European dishes. One of my favourite sections of EM Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) describes an attempt to replicate the cooking of ‘home’ in a household in India with an Indian cook wholly unfamiliar with British and French cuisines:

the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose of fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained: the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

In the future I’ll discuss the ways in which this insistence upon serving and eating a British menu in India – and, indeed, elsewhere in the Empire – were connected to the construction and maintenance of ‘civilised’ European identities, but, for the moment, I’d like to focus on Wyvern’s attempts to find a happy medium between Indian and English cooking.

In Jottings he expressly advises against stocking up with too many bottled and tinned fruit, vegetables, and meat, arguing that wives should acquaint themselves with the fresh produce on offer at local markets. Wyvern makes the reasonable point that there is little point in trying to cook simple, yet delicious, French-style meals with inferior ingredients.

There are many ladies who, when giving out stores for a dinner party, have no hesitation in issuing ‘tins’ to the value of many rupees, but if asked for extra cream, butter, eggs, and gravy-meat, – the true essentials of cookery, – begin to consider themselves imposed upon. The poverty of our cookery in India results almost wholly from our habit of ignoring these things, the very backbone, as it were, of the cook’s art. If an English cook, surrounded with the best market supplies in the world, be helpless without her stock, her kitchen butter, and her cream and eggs, how much more should Ramasámy be pitied if he be refused those necessaries, for his materials stand in far greater need of assistance.

Wyvern also suggests that curries and aspects of Indian cuisine be incorporated into everyday menus. In fact, he writes that curries should feature as the centrepiece of formal dinners, lamenting that this practice had fallen out of fashion since the formalising of British rule in the middle of the century. (Before then, the British East India Company had constituted Britain’s presence in India. British wives, families, and domesticity arrived with the Raj.) Like other British authors, Wyvern refers to a range of Indian dishes as ‘curry’, but he does recognise that Indian cooking is heavily regionalised – and not all of it is ‘curry’. He provides a collection of recipes for Madras and Sri Lankan curries, using ingredients and flavours specific to these areas.

However, as in the case with Ramasámy, while he acknowledges that the curries are good to eat using traditional methods, they can, nevertheless, be improved upon using European methods and ingredients:

Among other adjuncts that may be written down as indispensable are the ingredients needed to produce that suspicion of sweet-acid which it will be remembered, forms a salient feature of a superior curry. The natives of the south use a rough tamarind conserve worked, sometimes, with a very little jaggery or molasses, and a careful preparation of tamarind is decidedly valuable. Why, however, should we not improve upon this with red currant jelly and if further sharpness be needed, a little lime or lemon juice? In England, and I daresay in India also, chopped apple is sometimes used, and perhaps chopped mango, in the fool-days of the fruit, would be nice.

Curries cannot afford to dispense with the assistance of some stock or gravy. It is not uncommon to hear people say that they have eaten far better curries in England than in India, the chief reason being that Mary Jane will not undertake to make the disk without at least a breakfast-cupful and a half of good stock.

So in go red currant jelly and stock – two ingredients which could not be more remote from the cooking of south India. Wyvern also devotes some space to mulligatawny, a soup which seems to have originated in Victorian Madras when Indian cooks were asked to invent a soup for their British employers. They based it on the Tamil molo tunny, or pepper water, a medicinal preparation for curing stomach ailments. To the original recipe of water, black pepper, chillies, and tamarind were added the inevitable chicken stock, fried onions, chicken, and, depending on taste, rice. This mulligatawny was, as Lizzie Collingham notes in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2005), one of the first examples of a hybrid Anglo-Indian cuisine which developed in British settlements in the subcontinent. Others include kedgeree and new versions of curry – which were not only exported to Britain, but spread around India.

One of the most important products to emerge from this new Anglo-Indian cooking was ‘curry powder’. As I noted a fortnight ago, the idea of ‘curry powder’ is a British one. In south Asia, garam masala is a mix of spices which differs across regions, shops, and households. There is no single, correct recipe for it. Curry powder is a product blended by businesses for mass consumption. Wyvern believed strongly that the basis for any good curry was a good curry powder, but acknowledged that not every housewife had the skill, confidence, or time to produce her own:

I shall presently give a very valuable receipt for a stock household powder, one that was surrendered to me by an accomplished chatelaine, on the eve of her departure from India, as a token of the sincerest friendship. But for those who wish to avoid trouble and yet to have good curries, I strongly advocate the use of Barrie’s Madras curry-powder and paste. I am not employed as an advertising medium. My advice is not the advice of a ‘gent’ travelling for Messrs. Barrie and Co., it is the honest exhortation of one, my friends, who has the success of your curries very closely at heart. After more than twenty years’ experience of Barrie’s condiments, I say boldly, that I am aware of no preparations in the market that can equal them.

However much I do believe that Colonel Wyvern held the success of his readers’ curries ‘very closely at heart’, I wonder how much he did Barrie’s profit margins as well: Barrie’s appears frequently in Jottings. But Barrie’s was only one product in a very crowded market. The first British-produced curry powder was marketed at the end of the eighteenth century, and local as well as imported brands jostled for attention on the shelves of grocers around Britain by the late 1800s. These were blander and less fiery than Indian garam masala, but found an enthusiastic audience in Britain.

Collingham laments the Anglicisation of Indian cooking in British kitchens in both India and Britain, seeing it as a distinctly poor cousin to the original (or originals). I’m sure that many of the curries prepared in officers’ bungalows in Hyderabad and in suburban London weren’t terribly good, but I think it’s more useful to think of them as a kind of nineteenth-century imperial cuisine: the curries eaten by the British in India and in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, really, British. Collingham demonstrates:

On arrival in Bombay in 1858 as the bride of a British army officer, Matty Robinson discovered that Anglo-Indian curries were quite unlike the British ones she was used to: ‘I can’t touch the Indian fruits or the fish which they say is so delicious, and as to the curries it makes me sick to think of them; give me an English one!’

In recent – and entirely laudable – efforts to replicate the more nuanced nature of regional Indian cooking, these curries – the Madras curries of British invention – have been sidelined and even ridiculed. They are held up to illustrate the unsophisticated nature of the British palate. I think it’s a pity because these are truly delicious dishes.

But it would seem that they might be heading for a revival. Marcus Wareing has recently opened The Gilbert Scott, the new restaurant at the magnificently renovated and refurbished St Pancras Hotel in London. Like Heston Blumenthal at Dinner, Wareing has drawn inspiration from old, British recipe books, and particularly those from the period in which the St Pancras Hotel was built. He includes, of course, a mulligatawny soup. In this BASTARD video WHICH REFUSES TO EMBED (sorry, long day), the Guardian’s Tim Hayward waxes lyrical on the St Pancras Hotel, the Gilbert Scott, and Wareing’s menu. He samples the mullgatawny, and approves of it mightily on the grounds that it tastes ‘authentically’ of…curry powder. This, he suggests, is an example of proper, British cooking. Curry powder, a strange hybrid of British and Indian cuisines, has now become a ‘classic’ and, ironically, ‘authentic’.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and sConquerors (London: Vintage, [2005] 2006).

EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, [1924] 1989).

Colonel Wyvern, Culinary Jottings: A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery, 5th ed. (Madras: Higginbotham and Co., 1885).

—-, Notes from Madras (London: Penguin, 2011).

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

David Burton, French Colonial Cookery (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).

Lizzie Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

—-, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), pp. 67-83.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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