The Food of Empire: The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide

“Speaking as one quite recently escaped from the austerities of the British larder and from a land where cookery books exasperate rather than assist the housewife, it is good to be able to commend a book whose recipes can take shape at the dinner table.

But this book does much more than help the housewife to cope with the vagaries of mpishi and the kuni stove. It is not far short of a household compendium, with its laundry and poultry notes, first-aid and other useful information. It has also been known to guide husbands as well as wives through their first steps in Swahili.”

(Richard Cunningham, The Manse, Nairobi, 1948)

This is the third in a series of articles looking at the daily domestic lives of British colonial settlers in Africa, how they dealt with their new found challenges in sourcing, preparing and serving meals and how the food of empire was affected by the indigenous larder and customs. In each edition I look at cookbooks across the different periods of African colonisation that shed light on this rarely discussed topic.

It was in 1895 that the British colonial governors formed the East Africa Protectorate, establishing the Kenya Colony just a quarter of a century later. For the following forty three years a population of nearly 2.4 million native Africans and Indians were ruled by just nine and a half thousand Europeans. Kenya achieved full independence in 1963 yet of all colonial powers, the British and their cultural imprint have left an indelible mark on this country, more so than on any other African nation.

By the 1930’s there were 30 000 white settlers in Kenya and many of them came from the upper class British officer ranks who emigrated there, with their families, to grow and develop agriculture and the burgeoning trade economy, made possible by the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland, previously owned by Kikuyu and Maasai tribesmen, who had no land rights under foreign rule, were appropriated for growing tea and coffee, two staple ingredients that were shipped back to Britain.

In 1928 the Church of Scotland’s Women’s Guild compiled “The Kenya Settlers Cookery Book and Household Guide”, published by The East African Standard Ltd. in Nairobi, aiming to assist

“…newcomers to the Colony, to young or inexperienced housekeepers and to bachelor settlers in Kenya, who must often find themselves obliged to put up with incompetency on the part of untrained native cooks or houseboys.”

The book achieved its tenth edition in 1948, bringing together recipes, household hints and tips, medical knowledge and linguistic capabilities of the redoubtable members of the Guild.

The types of recipes contained within the book are of no surprise at all, many are the sorts of dishes that British expatriates would instantly recognise as home cooking. Poached eggs and Welsh rarebit for breakfast and cock-a-leekie soup and fricasseed chicken for lunch might lead to a light supper of cottage pie and fruit trifle on the verandah. A parallel empire, that of India, is also reflected in copious recipes for curried dishes, chutneys and pickles.

Advertisements for anything and everything from Elizabeth Arden face cream to Bovril, Milo and Nairobi cook shops line the sides of the pages, evidence of the ingenuity of the Guild in galvanising commercial support for their publishing venture. For the advertisers this would have been a valuable opportunity for showcasing anything from baking powder to stoves, provisions and washing-up soap to a captive and committed readership of honourable colonial housewives, keen to do their duty for both king and country.

This guide would have been of enormous practical use to any white settler, unaccustomed to dealing with African servants, who had to manage a house in a strange land with no modern day facilities or experience of the sorts of activities partaken in the colonial hinterlands. Many of the upper class ladies who arrived in Kenya at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century had never managed a household independently before, and the focus in Kenya was very much on an outdoor lifestyle.

In the section entitled “Hints for Safari”, preparation and diligence are called for in equal measure.

“The housewife who finds herself responsible for getting a safari ready will find it best to prepare a careful list of everything necessary beforehand and to check off the list as the packing proceeds.”

There is also a warning, lest said housewife should drop her guard in ensuring servants were up to the standard required:

“A boy who has been on safari is a great help as he generally knows what is required, but even the best boy should be supervised.”

Amongst the suggested foods to bring were a ready-boiled ham, curry powder, beef extract, lard or dripping, tinned fruit, meat and fish, bread, dried fruit and jelly powder {none too appetising}. The equipment includes paraffin, matches, bowls, thermos flask, shoe brushes, camp baths and beds and candles. The safari medicine chest shows how concerned the guild women might have been with the hygiene on the trip: permanganate and boracic crystals would have been used to kill bacteria and disinfect and quinine, aspirin and salvolatile, or brandy, would have taken care of the mosquitos, pains and heatwave, or even fainting.

From the use of electric cookers, to cleaning decanters and linens, keeping chickens, dealing with prickly heat and eradicating cockroaches with borax powder, every colonial outpost emergency is considered and dealt with accordingly in The Kenya Settlers Cookery Book and Household Guide. A cross between a cohort of hospital matrons, post-Victorian Isabella Beetons and Mother Superiors, the Guild ladies that created this book had common sense, calm efficiency and domestic wisdom by the spadeful.

Maybe it is because of the religious nature of the compilers, and most probably the likely readership also, that there is no mention of entertaining, no cocktail or dinner parties as one might have imagined in the land of “White Mischief”. Instead lemon syrup, pineapple punch and orangeade are as exciting as the drink recipes get.

In “Running the Show” by Stephanie Williams {published by Penguin in 2012}, we see another side of the overall picture, however. The book tells the extraordinary stories of the men who governed the British Empire, and in the chapter entitled “Letters from Nairobi: British East Africa 1909-1912”, we learn about the life of Gwen Solomon, the daughter of Sir Richard Solomon, Attorney General and Lieutenat Governor of the Transvaal, South Africa, and newly married bride of Sir Percy Girouard, governor of the Kenya colony. Unlike the women of the Guild the practical travails of household management were all taken care of by her maid, called Bird, and her husband’s Aide-de-Camp, John Murray.

She and her cousin, Anna,

“…spent two hours every morning doing the flowers, fresh for every room in the house. Within less than a fortnight she was hosting an “enormous” reception. “About 300 people and a black band and the most gorgeous tea and I have never seen such an odd collection in all my life, every tradesman in the place and their wives…” ”

Gwen’s life was an endless rush of pony racing, hunting, playing tennis, garden parties and reading novels. Far removed was she from the grinding vicissitudes of cooking and chores carried out by women of lesser orders or black servants.

It is interesting to note how few local ingredients are used in the Kenya settlers’ guide, how there is no reference whatsoever made to local cuisine or the use of native recipes and methodologies that could be garnered, shared and used. Britannia and all her customs are upheld throughout, from aspic, to kedgeree, Sally Lunn’s bread buns, orange marmalade, Mayfair fudge and Christmas cake. Imperial supremacy extended to the larder and dining room.

At the back of the book there is a very interesting English-Swahili language section which pinpoints a harsh light onto the complex, layered British settler and native servant domestic relationship. In both the wording of the phrases and their listing we gather a feeling of frustration: there is a sense of repetition, of having to tell the servant exactly the same thing in many guises and of having to gesticulate and point at utensils and tools in order to achieve the required results. A certain Mrs. Ratcliffe was responsible for creating the “Orders to Servants” list and, no doubt, she must have struck fear and submission in the house she managed.

“In this Section there has been no attempt to make an exhaustive vocabulary, to compile a grammer book. The sole object has been to assist newcomers, in the arduous first days of housekeeping in Kenya, when difficulties are enormously added to by the daily struggle to make oneself intelligible to one’s servants”.

It was deemed necessary for the lady of the house to be able to say in her very best, imperial-toned Swahili:

“I told you to do it like this…but you do it like this.”

“Go and wash yourself.”

“Do not cook the vegetables too early.”

“Do not be late with the food.”

“This meat is tough.”

“This tea must last …days.”

“Where have you been since you left your last Master?”

“I do not give such high wages. If you work here I will give you …shillings and food.”

“You are insolent! You must look pleasant (or) pleased.”

“Are my words clear to you?”

The word “please” is not included in the list, but the word for “thank-you” is there: “asanta”. I wonder how often it was used.

Just four years after the publication of the last edition of this book the Mau Mau uprisings and intra-tribal war amongst the Kikuyus, who wanted their farmland returned, brought about the incipient, violent unravelling of colonial rule in Kenya. In reading my battered, stained copy of this settlers’ cookbook, an unsettling and poignant reminder of how dangerous and fragile life was for those that went to the colonies is evoked. Maybe a reason why its tone seems so shockingly condescending and directorial now is because, in a world where every day was a struggle to put food on the table, listing short, sharp, succinct instructions, guidelines and solutions was one way of making sense of uncertainty and fear.

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