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The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook: Hints on Camp Life


By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

First published in 1888, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner, is the Mrs Beeton of British India. It sought to provide practical advice to young memsahibs in India. Ostensibly a manual of household management, it opens a fascinating window on to the day-to-day life of the British in India. In the abridged excerpt below, Steele and Gardiner offer some handy hints on camp life for those women who were wives of Civil Service employees. Read on to find out how to make an oven for the ‘cook-room’, how to make a tent comfortable, and how to make sure that country turnips ‘lose nearly all their paint-like taste’.

First, in regard to tents.

Whether these are supplied by Government or not, it is equally necessary to make them comfortable. The ordinary single pole tent is twice as convenient if it is divided down the centre with a pole and curtains so as to screen off the beds; while, if the inner kunnât on the side used as a drawing-room is divided just at the central door and thrown back to the outer kunnât (like a bow window), the stove can be placed in the tent, and will thoroughly warm it, whilst in the daytime the bow makes a charming, light place for writing or working. All that is wanted to make it perfect, beyond Complete Indian Housekeeperunpicking the join at the door, is a small durri to fit the bow, and a roof to match the inner fly of the tent. This is made to lace on with eyelet holes. By having two strips of kunnât with perpendicular bamboos, the two bits of verandah on either side can be turned into safe places for the khitmutgâr’s table, as by a simple arrangement of tapes and ties no dog can get in. In the same way capital bathrooms can be made on the other side, by closing the verandah in with permanent tight-fitting kunnâts on the side nearest the sitting-room, and having curtains on poles and rings at the other. How some people can go on for years and years with the makeshift purdah — hung by a string — that jams its horizontal bamboo into the sides of the tent when you desire to pass, and invariably refuses to fill up the space when you desire it to do so, is a mystery. In fact, the first axiom for camp is not to do without comfort, if it does not entail discomfort by increasing the trouble. A comfortable tent is no heavier than an uncomfortable one, and furniture suited to camp life is generally lighter than ordinary furniture. Charming folding tables of bamboo and deodar can be made for Rs. 2 each, and folding scissors or lazy-jane clothes-racks are to be bought anywhere for a rupee. Add two iron hooks to hang them over the kunnât, and you are possessed of hat or clothes pegs. A plain wooden cover for the bath, with three screw-legs to pack inside, gives you an excellent hold-all for boots, &c., and a far better washhand-stand than the usual dreadful gallows construction, which leaves you in doubt whether to put your soap in your pocket or allow it to melt in the basin…

To begin, however, systematically. The mistress will find it convenient to have a pair of light camel trunks for clothes, books, &c. A charming kind is made exactly like a chest of drawers, the removable fronts being convertible into trestle dressing-tables. It is a great saving of trouble only to have to pull out your drawers instead of uprooting from the bottom of a huge trunk. For stores she will find it best to have a box made and fitted with square tin canisters. A few cane chairs with wadded covers, little tables and tablecloths, and a shelf or two will give a home look to the sitting tent. It will be found also a great advantage to have strips of matting for the verandahs. They weigh little and cost a trifle. A square of mackintosh for soap, sponge, &c., is far more useful than a sponge-bag, and it will be found a great saving of trouble to have all these things — towels, basin, &c. — packed in your bath, so that they shall be ready for you on arrival…

In the cook-room too much ingenuity in devising little conveniences cannot be employed… The best oven for camp is a plain round sheet-iron drum, with a lid like a frying-pan. Supported by three bricks, and with dry earth heaped round, it bakes admirably; or an oven can be made thus: Dig a hole of two feet deep and one and a half feet wide in a dry spot. Half fill with sand. When required, fill up with burning sticks and cover over with the top of an ordinary oven. When sufficiently heated, remove the fuel and put in the cake to be baked. The same fire will do for laying on the top of the cover. This oven bakes a three-pound cake in as many hours. Meat safes of mosquito net with iron wire hoops to keep them expanded must not be forgotten. An old umbrella covered with a bag of mosquito net does admirably. Hot water for baths only needs a row of earthen choolâs and ghurras. The great difficulty is a larder, but a square framework like a folding-bed, consisting of four legs and four bamboos which fit into holes in the legs, will, with a well-fitting cover of mosquito net, be found very useful. Placed on a table, and the net left long enough to draw in with a runner under the top of the table, it makes an absolutely secure milk or meat larder…

A regular supply of bread, butter, and vegetables is apt to be a common difficulty; but as a rule the former can be got out from headquarters at intervals, and at the worst bread can be made which is more wholesome, if not quite so spongy, as the baker’s efforts. Nor should butter fail, for if you keep cows it is better to let them go into camp with you. If the march is done in the morning it is best to send the cow on half-way immediately after the evening’s milking, say, at half-past five. By this means she gets over half the journey at the best time, i.e., when the udder is dry, and rests and eats all night. Next morning at six the cowman should milk her and start off for the remainder of his journey, arriving about nine o’clock, carrying the milk in the pail. Or, if the march is done in the evening, the same plan may be adopted, beginning in the morning. The object in a rest half-way is to give the cow time to chew the cud, which she will never do unless she is at rest; indeed, it is a good plan to make the cowman take a bundle or basket of prepared forage with him, and feed the cow at least once on the road, halting for the purpose for an hour. Treated thus, a cow will not go off her milk at all, and of course it is not often that she will have to march every day. It will be seen, therefore, that it is possible to set half the day’s milk for twenty-four hours and half for twelve, even when actually on the march, so there should be no difficulty in making butter; but if the twelve hours’ stand does not throw up sufficient cream, it is quite easy to set it for milk butter in a jar. Swung to a camel, the butter will often be found ready made in the jar at the end of the march.

Vegetables are the chief difficulty, unless they can be had regularly from headquarters; nevertheless, they are not absolutely unobtainable anywhere, and they are certainly a necessity of life. Failing other things, country carrots are excellent stewed with gravy, or sliced and served up like beetroot with vinegar and oil. The spinach made from fresh gram leaves or turnip tops is also good; while country turnips, well mashed, the water squeezed from them by means of a clothwringer, and fresh milk, butter, salt, and pepper added, lose nearly all their paint-like taste. In addition, white haricot beans and Chollet’s compressed vegetables can always be taken in the store-box.

In regard to other supplies, the difficulty in procuring them depends entirely on your position. The district officials have none, while a mere globe-trotter may starve. It is merely a matter of coercion, for the peasant does not wish to sell, and will not sell, if he thinks it polite to refuse. This fact should never be forgotten by the mistress, for it is easy to understand how fearful a weapon for oppression that appalling necessity of camp life, the tâhseel chuprassi, or tâhseel office orderly, may become…

In regard to the time of marching, people with children often find it more convenient to march in the afternoon, and in some ways it is easier for the servants. When, however, the breadwinner has outdoor work, as, for instance, in the case of a revenue or canal officer — in fact, of all officers in civil employ — the morning is the best time; for much of his work is sure to lie en route, and would necessitate his starting almost in the heat of the day if it is to be done in the afternoon. The great charm of camp, too, the early morning ride, is lost; but in this matter personal convenience has to be consulted. The only difficulty of marching in the morning, viz., the servants’ broken rest, is easily reduced to a minimum. One man in turn goes on ahead with one set of kujâwars, leaving two men behind to pack up the dinner things and start at daybreak. Or all the equipage can start in charge of one table-servant over night, and the others rise early and overtake them. But with either camels or carts the native manages to sleep en route comfortably enough, especially if he is off duty, and this can easily be managed by putting the servants in charge by turns.

If marching in the morning is the rule, it is an art to leave nothing out except the clothes you are to put on, the bedding, and, in the cook-room, the materials for early morning tea. With children, however, a large kettle and a medicine chest should remain behind.

In regard to stores, it is well to take as few as possible, especially tinned provisions, but do not make yourself uncomfortable for want of things to which you are accustomed.

That is the great secret of camp life.

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