Colonial Cookbooks


This collection of colonial-era domestic texts provides a rich basis for comparative analyses of imperial attitudes towards domesticity and race across national borders. In Section 1, the texts paint a picture of imperial India in which Britishness rests on domesticity, and domesticity rests in turn on Indian servants. The first text begins with the poem;
We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may with without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
He may live without books; - what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope; - what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love; - what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?
                        (Owen Meredith, quoted in Dainty Dishes 1879: unnumbered title page)
This poem is a key opening to this project, as it foregrounds the centrality of domesticity above all else to Victorian life, and the specifically performative nature of that domesticity in which “dining” is prioritized, not simply “eating”. Likewise, however, he acknowledges that this way of life rests on cooks who perform the hard domestic labour. In the Anglo-Indian texts of this section, however, there is a repudiation and distrust of the servants which make this domestic life possible, because they are viewed in highly colonial and racial terms. In many of the texts, servants are discussed as dishonest “skulking savage[s]” (Steel and Gardiner 1890: v) who are associated with the “risk of uncleanliness” (Byrde and Pearson 1906: vii). From these perspectives, they don’t appreciate or understand Western domesticity, because they have often “failed in every sphere of life” (Dey: 19--: 1) and “lining their own pockets is to them a matter of far greater importance than the excellence of the dishes they are called on to make” (Dainty Dishes 1879: Preface). These generalizing and harshly racial conceptions of the Indian servant demonstrate the intense Othering of the Indian taking place, in order to in turn preserve what is ‘English’ in such a foreign place. Thus, while English cookbooks can be seen to perform Zlotnick’s argument, demonstrating the other “not as a source of threat or contamination” (53), these are the exact narratives of danger and illness that underpin Anglo-Indian cookbooks.
Indeed, civilizing and controlling the cook is discussed as key to a successful home. Both Dainty Dishes for Indian Tables and Steel and Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook highlight the use of Urdu translations of cookbooks to teach servants about household mores and manners. In this way, the texts not only incite and inform the oppression of the servants by the mistresses, but have the potential to bypass the memsahib altogether and directly impart their imperial ideology to the Indian servants.
The second section demonstrates that in Western texts discussing Western servants, these implications of uncleanliness and dishonesty are far less prevalent. This is significant because while it may seem clear that these Anglo-Indian discourses were rooted in racial Othering, the class politics of the Western world, and especially England, could also be deeply unkind to servants. Yet, while some class prejudice is evident (particularly in Domestic Economy), these texts overall demonstrate that in constructing Western domesticity, the servant was to be prized and is eminently reasonable. If “a cook sees that her mistress is willing to give her fair wages for her services […] that chances are that the servant will readily submit to be taught” (Barker 1886: 10), and this loyalty rests of kindness, not punishment as would be promoted for the Indian servant. As Peterson notes in The Young Wife’s Cookbook, “the attachment of a servant to a family can only be bought by mildness, forbearance and kind words – to them” (1870: 26). The repudiation of the Indian servant is not necessary here.
In the final section, these two discourses come together in the text that aims to help acclimatize the memsahib back to England through the kitchen. As Hervey writes, in comparison to the Indian servant, “the English servant, I find, is open to instruction. Outs, a raw country Essex girl, has learnt to boil rice as well as any old “Thunnikurchi” or cook-boy out there, and I am hopeful of being able to entrust her with curries etc, at no very distant date” (1895: 2). Here, Zlotnick’s conception of the naturalisation of Indian food in England is reaffirmed. The resentment of the Indian servant as ignorant and the respect of the English servant as a vital enabler of domestic harmony also come together, as the English are perceived as successfully learning and executing even the most quintessentially Indian domestic tasks just as well as the Indians. In comparing these attitudes of servants in colonial India to their counterparts in England at the time, we can see how in Western conception the servant is vital to domestic success, and in India they are perceived almost as an obstacle to a harmonious home. For the imperial project to succeed, the naturalization of the colonial threat was necessary in England, and its intense preservation was vital in India. Yet, it is upon these mistreated servants that Anglo-Indian domesticity, so vital to their English self-conception, rested. It is important to recognize that many memsahibs moved back and forth between India and England, and as such would have read cookbooks of multiple nationalities and subscribed to the domestic discourses specific to the location they were in. The fluidity of these discourses demonstrates the strength of the British imperial consciousness in altering understandings of the home.
In bringing this selection of texts together, we can examine how Western and Anglo-Indian attitudes to domestic spaces, and especially the kitchen, inform one another. The value of examining not just the recipes in cookbooks and household guides, but also the prefaces, introductions and conclusions, is revealed by the interesting readings that can be formed by considering these texts in conversation with one another. Due to their strong authorial voices, we can see that cookbooks become one of the most blatant expressions of domestic (and imperial) ideologies, both creating and perpetuating discourses about the self, the Other, and the domestic.


Works Cited:
Anonymous. 1827. Domestic Economy and Cookery, For Rich and Poor. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.
Anonymous. 1879. Dainty Dishes for Indian Tables. Calcutta: W. Newman and Co.
Barker (Lady). 1886. First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking: In Three Parts. London: Macmillan.
Byrde and Pearson. 1906. Bread, Pastry and Butter Making in India and the Colonies. Culcutta: Thacker, Spink an Co.
Dey, I R. 19??. Indian Cookery and Confectionary. Calcutta: Naba Gouranga Press.   
Hervey, Henrietta. 1895. Anglo-Indian Cookery at Home: A Short Treatise for Returned Exiles. London: Horace Cox.
Peterson, HMB. 1870. The Young Wife’s Cookbook, With Receipts of the Best Dishes for Breakfast, Dinner and Tea. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers.
Steel, Flora and Grace Gardiner. 1890. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook. Edinburgh: Frank Murray.  
Zlotnick, Susan. 1996. “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England”. In Frontiers: A Journal and Women Studies, 16.2/3. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.