Books that are pleasant to read

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, June 02, 2009 , , ,

As ever, Tory Historian is appalled by the paucity of recent postings on this blog. Let us rectify it by reference to two books, at present in the bathroom, to be read in a particularly relaxed mood. Both are about the history of food and drink but approach the subject very differently, not just from a geographical and social point of view but from that of what is important intellectually. (Eeek should one be using words like intellectually if one is a Tory Historian?)

The lighter one is “The Raj at Table” by David Burton, a professional cookery writer from New Zealand, who became interested not just in Indian food but in the whole concept of the food of the British Raj and the social habits that grew up around it.

The introductory history tends to be a little on the accepted and predictable trendy side – all that stuff about the White Man’s Burden, a phrase Kipling coined in very special circumstances: he addressed the poem to the Americans in 1899 after the Spanish-American War when the Philippines were taken. Like the better known Recessional, written for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, the poem is not precisely a hymn to imperialism but an acceptance of duty and a warning against arrogance. One may or may not agree with Kipling sentiments but using that phrase, like “dominion over palm and pine”, in an inappropriate throw-away line is wrong and dishonest.

Mr Burton is not an historian but a food writer. For all of that he is full of every prejudice against Victorians that the world of glamour media supplies, often disproving his statements by his own accounts and quotations.

For instance, he maintains that the “memsahibs” (a word he is inordinately fond of) managed to remove Indian cuisine from British tables, imposing their own view of what food should be, that is either British and heavy or French and inappropriate. Yet, every menu, every description of every meal, breakfast, lunch (tiffin) and even dinner seem to include curries and pilavs. They had not all gone.

Tory Historian suspects that the homes of the numerous traders and businessmen as well as lower rank officials that do not figure in Mr Burton’s accounts had a greater preponderance of Indian food than the Viceroy’s or various Governor-General’s formal dinners.

Another crime the Victorians were apparently guilty of is contempt for all things Indian (Mr Burton clearly does not know about Lord Curzon’s hard work to preserve Indian memorials and architectural works of art) and disregard for Indian notions. Yet he also tells us that “[i]n certain parts of India it was not permitted to eat pea-fowl, however, out of respect for Hindus, who consider the bird sacred”.

Furthermore, it seems that British officers would attend important Hindu and Muslim festivals throughout the year as a mark of respect, as well as invite various high-ranking Indians to Christmas parties. So, errm, what is the truth about that lack of respect? Some and some, as usual? Or, maybe people who attempt to write on any aspect of cultural history should learn more about their subject (including the timing of when service à la Russe, that is course following a course in the now accepted fashion, became the norm in Britain).

Given all that, why does Tory Historian think that this is a pleasant book to read? Because when David Burton manages to overcome his prejudices he produces a delightful set of stories about what the British ate in India. It cannot really be called a history because he hops around so much, demonstrating a story from the early twentieth century by providing an anecdote or a description from the early nineteenth.

A number of his quotations had Tory Historian reaching for library catalogues for further reading. Above all, there are the recipes. How can one resist dishes that are called: Pineapple Beef, Jahl Fry, Sandhurst Curry (one to try on one’s enemies), Navroji Framji’s Mahratha-Mode Meat Curry or desserts such as Pootoo Rice Fritters? Tory Historian intends to try one or two and describe recipes and results.

The other book is a more scholarly one: “Coffee and Coffeehouses” by Ralph S. Hattox.

Professor Hattox, who appears to be an expert on the history of coffee, an excellent thing to be in Tory Historian’s opinion, “The Origin of a Social Beverage in the Mediaeval Near East”. He writes of the early history of coffee, its use in Sufi rituals, the general growth of its consumption and the importance of coffeehouses as social and cultural centres.

The early part of the book is taken up with the ferocious debates and fights around the introduction of coffee, the furious attacks on it and the rituals around it by Islamic scholars and the equally furious defence by other scholars and people who liked coffee.

This proves that in the Near East, just as later in Europe, coffee had and has a magical quality, good or bad. Coffeehouses were always dangerous places as far as the authorities were concerned; the drinking of coffee was often perceived as something akin to black magic (and that is not counting the fortune telling that revolves round coffee sediment).

On the evidence of the first two chapters Professor Hattox’s book, based on Arab and European sources will impart much of interest. Plus there are delightful illustrations of coffee makers, coffee drinkers and coffeehouses.


  1. Anonymous Says:
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  4. k Says:
  5. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, which is set in Istanbul in the 16th century, has a coffee house as one of the key locations. The religious fundamentalists keep on campaigning against it, eventually going on the rampage, destroying the place and killing someone.

    The reason they do not like the coffee house is partly because they believe drinking coffee is evil, and partly because there is a story teller there whose metaphors are clearly directed against the religious leaders. The coffee house is anti-establishment and anti-orthodoxy.

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