It was a revelation to me to find that curry was part of eighteenth century cuisine. I had not seen it in Baker and, my curiosity aroused I looked to the Essex Record Office to see if this phenomena of east meets west was something I could see locally. I wasn’t disappointed. With access to digital images on the their SEAX website I found Mrs Elizabeth Slany’s recipe book.
The ERO has a blog featuring an overview of Slany’s recipes which also points to an article in Essex Countryside magazine dated February 1966 written by Daphne E Smith who judges Elizabeth to be ‘a most efficient housewife who nurtured her family with care.’ Smith also assumes that the recipe book was started in preparation for her forthcoming marriage. However the 1715 date on the fly leaf is a full eight years before Elizabeth married Benjamin LeHook in 1723 so if true it was quite a lengthy engagement.
With Benjamin a London agent it is probable Elizabeth did not reside in Essex . However, her eldest daughter did, marrying into the Wegge family of Colchester. As the ‘hand’ within the book changes halfway through it can be assumed it was she who entered the ‘currey’ recipe, giving me the local Essex location I was looking for.
I admit, realising the recipe was probably the daughters not her mothers did dilute my first ecstatic light-bulb moment of ‘I’ve discovered curry in England as early as 1715 !’ into ‘stop jumping to conclusions and analyse, you’re a historian!’ However, on reflection it was just as exciting to realise young Elizabeth’s ‘currey’ was realistically contemporary with Hannah Glasse’s inclusion of this hot and spicy dish in her book The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy 1747.
Madhur Jaffrey, in the introduction to her book Curry Nation dismisses Glasse’s recipe as little more than a spicy gravy, consisting of pepper and Coriander seeds which were to be ‘browned over the fire in a clean shovel’ before being beaten to a powder. At this point the rice was added during cooking. Nevertheless, it gave the women who cooked these exotic dishes a connection to Britains growing empire. It also gave the recipients of such meals a way to ‘virtually tour’ the wider world. Though such recipes were effectively Anglicised claims that they were ‘true’ Indian dishes seems not to have been questioned.
Inevitably the taste and composition of the dish gradually changed, as seen in subsequent editions of Glasse’s book plus by the end of the century a commercial curry powder blend had became available. Bickham, in his study of C.18 culinary imperialism, Eating the Empire tells us how curry recipes were included in mass produced affordable cookery books. Aimed at a lower to middling sorts these women would have used curry powder for convenience buying it from grocers shops who in turn sourced it directly from spice wholesalers or from larger shops.
Elizabeth LeHook’s receipt book lists two curry recipes and the first does appear to be a glorified stew consisting of 2-3 Lbs of mutton and onions. She then recommends it be thickened with ‘the curry stuff’ plus to add the juice of two lemons, some salt and cayenne pepper, adding a note at the end,
NB. 2 large spoonfuls is be sufficient for a curry of two pounds and so in proportion – add to the curry powder about a fifth of turmeric.
Her second recipe calls for chicken , lamb, or duck to be prepared in the same fashion, stewing the meat in enough water to see it become tender. Shallots or onion are added. Then the gravy is strained off, thickened with a tablespoon of ‘the powder’ and returned to the pan so everything stews together for a further half an hour or,
‘until it is of a proper thickness to be sent to the table’.
Rice was then to be served up as usual.
Elizabeth Slany’s connection to the empire is still visible over the page. Here she tells us how to make a Turkish pilau. Interestingly as featured in my previous post Methods of Measurement and Delight , Elizabeth uses money as a visual aid stating the pound of mutton required should be cut up small about the size of a crown piece.
On the opposite page are instructions as to the Chinese way of boiling rice. This reflects on the importance eighteenth century housewife’s placed on authenticity or at least the pretence of it, in connection with their perceived social status. The process was simple, the rice being washed in cold water then boiled in hot until soft. It was then left in a clean vessel to blanch until snow white and as hard as crust. By then it had apparently become an excellent substitute for bread!
To find the exotic in Essex was gratifying and I was fortunate to have found what I was looking for in one of the few recipe books in the ERO to have been digitalised. It was not a groundbreaking discovery; after all I hadn’t found curry in 1715 had I ? But, I had found local evidence of what we, as HR650 students had been seeing in recipe books far grander than Elizabeth Slany’s. If nothing else its a testament to shared domestic knowledge and the proof of domestic involvement in what was then a new and expanding British empire.