Press Esc to close

Cup of tea or two?

Simon Winchester, The New York Times, Dec 16 2017, 21:57 IST

The old cookbooks - as Lizzie Collingham reminds us in her joyously delicious account of Britain's gastronomic influence on the world - employed Christmas recipes like this to offer children a geography lesson. The currants, we were told, were Australian, the raisins from South Africa, the suet from New Zealand. Demerara sugar was shipped in from Barbados, the eggs came from chickens in the Irish Free State. The cinnamon was from Ceylon, the cloves from Zanzibar. There was Malayan nutmeg, Cypriot brandy, Jamaican rum. Only the bread crumbs, the flour, and the porter came from home, from England.

My mother would buy all these ingredients each Christmas season, invariably at the closest thing to a supermarket in the London suburb where I grew up - which was called, appropriately, The Home and Colonial.

It was one of a chain of grocery stores so familiarly central to English life of the 1950s that it came to be memorialised in poetry. John Betjeman, known for his sentimental odes to the ordinary, wrote of his Welsh sylph Myfanwy with a still-remembered stanza:

Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,
Black-stockinged legs under navy blue serge/
Home and Colonial, Star, International,
Balancing bicycle leaned on the verge.

Few here in America could imagine the Safeway or the Piggly Wiggly to be deserving of such verse or such sentiment.

Neither do many see romance in the origins of these foods, nor of their passage across the ocean. Except for Kipling, of course:

Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England's own coal, up and down the salt seas?
We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.
And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers?
And where shall I write you when you are away?
We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver -
Address us at Hobart, Hong-Kong, and Bombay.

As Kipling then, so the historian Lizzie Collingham today. In her original and supremely captivating book, she has cleverly recreated the fine details of some 20 meals, consumed over four-and-a-half centuries in a variety of homes and ships and tented encampments far from the motherland. Her technique - already displayed in earlier books on the history of curry, the importance of diet and physique in the running of Imperial India and the role of food in wars involving both Germany and Japan - is to examine the minutiae of daily kitchen life and to extrapolate from them a greater image of historical sweep.

And so we learn much from such matters as the 17th-century churning of butter between the thighs of a half-naked Irishwoman in Connaught; from the weekly budget of a 19th-century New Zealand farm labourer; from a tea party in a Manchester slum as described in an Elizabeth Gaskell novel; and from a British infantryman's diet in the North African desert during World War II - gooseberry jam preferred to strawberry, Egyptian sweet potatoes cordially loathed, as were the bully beef from the Fray Bentos canning factory in Argentina and the hardtack from Carr's of Carlisle.

From such lavish depictions, we derive with infinite pleasure a pointilliste picture of the world's food economy in all its magical complexity.

Many of the book's portraits are charming, and some are especially important in their reach. "Freshly bathed, Kamala set about preparing her family's evening meal," Collingham writes of an Indian family living near Patna in 1811. "First she smoothed fresh cow dung in a circle to define a purified cooking space and sprinkled it with a few drops of water. Then she took some of the chillies she had plucked from the plants that grew near the family's hut and cast them on the grinding stone with a few drops of safflower oil, made from the seeds of the thistle-like plants that formed a picturesque hedge surrounding their plot of land." As is characteristic of the book, there is rather more to this particular sojourn in India than one might initially suppose, and as the context will eventually make clear.

For it has been a conceit of some historians to make a connection between seemingly unconnected phenomena, like the consumption of tea and the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan. The linkage goes like this: so beloved was tea back in Britain that the East India Company ran out of silver bars to pay the currency-suspicious Cantonese and instead plied them with India-made opium; the Chinese Empire went to war to stop this grubby trade in what they called "foreign mud"; it lost and was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain; a thus-weakened China was then first nibbled at, then serially gnawed into further humiliating submission by Russia, France, Germany, America - and Japan, newly open to the outside world.

Japan acquired a liking for easy imperial adventure, decided unwisely to attack Pearl Harbor, whereupon America responded with sustained might - and lo!, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were eventually and cruelly laid waste.

A world away, Kamala, peacefully making her chhattu pudding and her currant chutney, turns out to be a tiny cog in the mechanism of this very story, for the simple reason that she and her family "belonged to a small sub-caste of market gardeners who specialised in the cultivation of opium poppies."

By relating a moment in Kamala's little life, the dry facts of history - in this case, the basis and results of the Opium Wars - are enticingly leavened by the presence of ordinary humanity.

We may loathe the British trade, we may shudder at its terrible consequences, but we easily grow fond of the young woman who cut poppies during the day and then came home in the afternoon to create a pudding for her husband and children.

There are precious few Kamalas in Erika Rappaport's sturdy A Thirst for Empire, in which she tells with authority how tea and the culture of tea drinking have influenced the greater history of the British Empire and the British influenced-world beyond. Despite being a somewhat drier work than Collingham's, it is nonetheless fascinating: Rappaport's description of the ways in which tea has been marketed over the years is entirely absorbing, especially for an academic audience.

Absorbing and, to some, unsettling. To learn, for instance, that the Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer-goods companies, had by the 1990s achieved control of a third of the world tea trade is dismaying to those who unfashionably recall with affection the imperial planter life of Assam and Ceylon and the hills of Kenya. Still more unsettling is the coming reality that coffee - quelle horreur! - is fast overtaking tea as the national drink of England. That is seen as a sea change of as much significance as Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the decline of the five-day cricket match and a slipping national fondness for Marmite and Gentleman's Relish.

When news like that accumulates, only one thing can soothe the English soul - and that is to reach for "the cup that cheers."

But in making it, be sure to bring the pot to the kettle and not the kettle to the pot. I suspect even the Netherlanders who run Unilever know how to make a decent cuppa these days. Which is rather more, I regret to say to my new-made compatriots, than they do here in America.

Go to Top

More from this section
Most trending stories
Photo Gallery
Two peacocks in a mid-flight at the Rastrapati Bhawan in New Delhi...

Two peacocks in a mid-flight at the Rastrapati Bhawan in New Delhi...

Former Telecom Minister A Raja addresses the gathering at his book launch 'The 2G Saga...

Former Telecom Minister A Raja addresses the gathering at his book launch 'The 2G Saga...

Police personnel stand guard near the premises of Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya...

Police personnel stand guard near the premises of Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya...

STF personnel recover gold after a raid which resulted in arrest of most wanted criminal Subodh...

STF personnel recover gold after a raid which resulted in arrest of most wanted criminal Subodh...

Former Miss Earth Nicole Faria addresses the event for felicitation of 112 women achievers...

Former Miss Earth Nicole Faria addresses the event for felicitation of 112 women achievers...

Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai at an event to recognise 112 women achievers, to be honoured...

Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai at an event to recognise 112 women achievers, to be honoured...

A farmer burns the residue of her sugarcane crop at her farm on a cold foggy morning...

A farmer burns the residue of her sugarcane crop at her farm on a cold foggy morning...

Kite-enthusiasts display a kite with an image of Kulbhushan Jadhav during International Kite...

Kite-enthusiasts display a kite with an image of Kulbhushan Jadhav during International Kite...

Honey bees visit a flower near Vijay Chowk area in New Delhi...

Honey bees visit a flower near Vijay Chowk area in New Delhi...

A squirrel eats corn grains on a cold winter morning in Bhopal ...

A squirrel eats corn grains on a cold winter morning in Bhopal ...

Like us on Facebook

Copyright 2017, The Printers (Mysore) Private Ltd., 75, M.G Road, Post Box 5331, Bengaluru - 560001
Tel: +91 (80) 25880000 Fax No. +91 (80) 25880523
Powered by Yodasoft Technologies Pvt. Ltd.