They didn’t have my fire

Bee Wilson

  • The Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
    Portobello, 439 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84627 083 3

‘I went into a milk-house; they brought me some cream-cheese curds and whey, and two slices of that excellent Piedmont bread, which I prefer to any other; and for five or six sous I had one of the most delicious meals I ever recollect to have made.’ Thus Rousseau in his Confessions, where he also writes about his liking for pears, his fear of pastry shops, his fondness for starting the day with milky coffee and his preference for simple, ‘rustic repasts’: ‘give me milk, vegetables, eggs and brown bread, with tolerable wine and I shall always think myself sumptuously regaled.’

A life history in which the stomach is wholly absent – you would never know whether John Stuart Mill ever yearned for sweets or felt his tummy rumble – doesn’t seem quite human. It is only in the past decade or so, however (M.F.K. Fisher and Alice B. Toklas notwithstanding), that food has been making the transition from supporting role to chief protagonist. In these ‘food memoirs’, all the ups and downs in a life which might once have hinged on ideas or love or work or family are played out through meals. ‘I love good eating; am sensual, but not greedy,’ Rousseau writes, then adds: ‘I have such a variety of inclinations to gratify that this can never predominate; and unless my heart is unoccupied, which very rarely happens, I pay but little attention to my appetite.’

We couldn’t accuse the new food memoirists of paying too little attention to their appetite. The demands of their chosen genre – as well as those, doubtless, of their publishers – force them to pay obsessive attention to the minutiae of their hunger as it changes over the years. No snack is too insignificant to forget. It doesn’t even have to have been eaten: the food memoirists have a particular fondness for describing the airline food that they have refused to eat. In Cooking for Mr Latte, Amanda Hesser abhors the ‘rubbery chicken suffocating in tinfoil’ on a flight to Spain, shunning it in favour of her own parcel of blanched asparagus dressed with blood orange, grapeseed oil and goat curd. In Where Shall We Go for Dinner?, Tamasin Day-Lewis describes a British Airways breakfast – ‘one of those damp, indigestible dough-balls filled with mechanically recovered pink slurry’. Day-Lewis does not eat it, which leaves her stomach ‘gavotting and rumbling as I ran from the main terminal to the domestic one in Rome’. Ruth Reichl, one of the best of the recent food memoirists – she is the author of the trilogy Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples and Garlic and Sapphires – describes an uneaten airline meal as she flies from LA to New York on her way to take up a job as restaurant critic at the New York Times. ‘It steams unappetisingly up at me: a squishy brown square of meat surrounded by a sticky stockade of potatoes that might have been mashed last year.’

In The Settler’s Cookbook the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes her life from the sour mangoes dipped in chilli powder she eats as a child in Uganda in the 1950s to the potato parathas she cooks to soothe marital disputes in 21st-century London. But she is different from the others in that she eats the airline food. On a flight from Kampala to Heathrow in March 1972, fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda, she accepts and even consumes a tray of airline food, ‘grey cubes of indeterminate meat in grey gravy, with greying potatoes and a sort of custard which isn’t grey but tastes like it could be’. She is on her way to start her postgraduate studies in Oxford and marry her ‘True Love (TL), who has been there for a year’. Eating the airline food is an act not of conformity but of defiance. She is trying to distance herself from the other Asian Ugandans on the flight, the older women who reach in their bags and produce smelly snacks of ‘samosas, dhal bhajias, chilli bhajias, home-made mithai, fried mogo, bright chutneys that inevitably drip’. The women crowd around Alibhai-Brown, sticking Tupperware boxes and hennaed hands glistening with oil into her face. ‘No, don’t take hers, here mine, first class mine.’ She refuses them all, ‘repelled’ by this ‘crowd of desis’ who ‘behave like villagers on a bus’. The desis, understandably, are offended. One of them curses Alibhai-Brown ‘in loud Hindi’ for eating ‘that plane horrible food’. They think she thinks she is better than them. They are right: ‘I am a scholar of Dickens and Shakespeare, and make pretty apple pies and Victoria sponges light as kites. I am not quite one of them, or so I pretend, even though my mum makes the same snacks at home.’

Rousseau begins his Confessions with the ambition to ‘present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself’. He is a model of man if not a model man. At the same time, he says: ‘I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence.’ Alibhai-Brown also presents herself as simultaneously typical and exceptional. She is typical insofar as she is a Ugandan Asian of a certain generation, ‘whose forebears left India in the 19th century’ for East Africa before ‘Africa disgorged us too, and here we are people in motion, now in the West, the next stopover.’ As a baby in Kampala, born in 1949, she is fed on tinned milk (made in England because her mother, like other Asian mothers in Uganda, has been brainwashed (by a woman called Mrs Penelope) into thinking that it is better than breastmilk. ‘Now, you want the best for your sweet chocolates, don’t you?’ In the 1950s and 1960s, her family, like other Asian families, occupies an uneasy place in the country, ‘brown middlemen’, a ‘buffer class’ of traders, midway between the black majority and the white overclass. ‘In 1961, non-Africans made up 1 per cent of the population of Uganda. They owned most of the wealth of the country and occupied almost all the high-status jobs.’ Alibhai-Brown notes that the equivalent of £15 a year was spent on the education of a black child, as against £150 for an Asian child and £600 for a white child. She was thus not unusual in the colonial education she received among other Asians (Ugandan Asian girls had been getting an education since the 1920s): science with Mrs Bose, Shakespeare and Chekhov with Mr Das. Mr Kavi, the history teacher, ‘a pukka British loyalist’, taught them to cheer ‘when the Indian Uprising (Mutiny to him) was finally put down’.

Typical too is Alibhai-Brown’s cultural unease. As a teenager, she is torn between Asian modesty (‘our languages have no words to express sexual longings’) and the freer ways of the Africans. In her twenties, in Oxford, she and TL are confused by the contrast between their Muslim marriage and the bohemian ways of North Oxford (‘wild sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’): ‘we had no compass.’ In her thirties, in London, she feels torn between liking her white British friends and detesting the version of white Britain represented by Mrs Thatcher. Even now that she is a successful and established pundit – a regular voice on the BBC and in the Independent, an Orwell Prize winner with an MBE, which she first accepted and then rejected – she retains the East African Asian sense of ‘emptiness’, of not really belonging anywhere, neither among the black Africans of Uganda nor here, where she is often told ‘to fuck off back where I came from’.

The consolation, the book suggests, is food – the food of the Indian diaspora. The Settler’s Cookbook is full of longing for the in-between food of the Ugandan Asians. When the Indians came to Africa, they brought with them ‘rice, grains, ghee and jaggery, beads, cloth, cooking pots, black peppercorns, cinnamon and other spices and flavourings’. In Uganda, they re-create the dhals and rotis and milky-sweet cardamom scented puddings of India, interspersed with the fruit and vegetables of lush green Uganda – the plantains, cashews, mogo (cassava) and ngonjas (Ugandan plantains). Whenever Asians visited an Asian shop in Uganda, Alibhai-Brown recalls, they would be offered dhal and roti. Spicy food was an act of solidarity against the British, whose school inspectors warned against ‘malodorous packed lunches’. Alibhai-Brown is proud to recall her own malodorous lunches of roti filled with potato curry; spicy mince with egg; chicken curry with radishes or cucumber: much more delicious than the revolting sausage rolls they were taught to make in English cookery lessons at school. The meat became sticky-grey in the heat and couldn’t even be eaten because it wasn’t halal.

Yet there was also an element of culinary kowtowing to the British, an obeisance to bland beef wellington and shepherd’s pie, however unappetising under the Ugandan sun. Some English tastes were adapted before they were accepted. ‘Victoria sponges were lifted with lime juice or saffron; shortbread was pepped up with grainy cardamom seeds; grated cheese was added to kebab mixtures . . . We made a wonderful creamy pudding using wild dried apricots and carrots to resemble trifle, but it was nothing at all like it.’ Other British foodstuffs were adopted straight. ‘Mysterious-tasting HP and LP sauces, blanket-warm Ovaltine and cake icings gave us imperial cachet.’ Alibhai-Brown’s father, Kassim, was ‘the perfect Edwardian gent’, fond of beef consommés, melba toast and coddled eggs.

These insipid tastes of Kassim’s, as Alibhai-Brown describes them, were those of generations of pre-Amin Asians who adopted blandness as a form of status. ‘In the 1950s “vernacular” food had been condemned as dangerous for growing kids by awesome white health experts who recommended plain English grub instead.’ In contrast to British children, for whom sweets – because rationed – are the desirable food, Alibhai-Brown and her contemporaries were the ‘sugar children’, stuffed to the gills with sweet bland foods and therefore always yearning after the sour and the pungent. She remembers a seven-year-old boy, Alnoor, who became a compulsive onion eater in response to his mother’s dull broths. ‘He carried the stench on his breath, his hands and his uniforms. The armpits of his white shirts turned lilac.’ By contrast, the grown-up Indian men who find professional jobs in Britain return speaking of ‘steaks and prawn cocktails’ and claiming that ‘they no longer had the stomach for spicy food.’

Kassim, similarly, eats his coddled eggs, wears English cufflinks and dreams of Oxford. At one point, he sets up a shop called the Damji Oxford Hat Emporium, selling – or rather failing to sell – ‘elegant headwear’ such as gold turbans and ‘a brown velvet cap that looked like a squashed dog’. Even by the standards of Asian anglomania, this was eccentric. Kassim’s tastes were those of his class and place, but they were also his alone. Not every Ugandan Asian ended each day with a single egg on toast, or recited the names of classic English cars ‘like beads on a rosary’. Kassim emerges from the book as a charming but impossible man, who abandoned his family for months at a time, once breaking his wife’s finger in a rage. A drunk who was always losing money, he never stuck at anything for long. Thanks to Kassim’s profligacy, the family was atypically poor.

‘While we were having to scrimp, other folk around us were amassing wealth, and it piled up in their homes and as soft flesh on their bodies.’ Other families paraded their riches with creamy meat curries – less than two inches of ghee floating on top of a dish ‘made you low class’. Yasmin and her long-suffering mother, Jena, often subsisted on ‘watery dhal’ or ‘curried tinned sardines – yuk – and various lentils, sometimes for weeks on end’.

Her economic position was not the only thing that made Alibhai-Brown unusual. She is exceptional . . . oh, she is exceptional in countless ways, as she isn’t shy to tell us, from the moment she is born, the youngest of three children, a tiny three-pound scrap ‘blue-purple like a small aubergine’, the result, she thinks, of the last ever time her parents slept together. As a child, she is always the first to arrive in school. ‘I am smart and funny. When I was young, parents liked their children to befriend me, especially the dopes who languished with bad grades.’ Her A levels are the highest attained in the whole country and she is a great Shakespearean, playing Juliet and Cleopatra. Her degree – first class honours in literature – is one of the best that Makerere University has ever seen, and her intelligence continues to be recognised when she finds work, in her late thirties, on ‘New Society, a unique publication which disseminated to readers detailed information about academic research, public policy, activist campaigns and the arts. I was elated.’ But she isn’t just brainy. She is also ‘smart and funny’, and succeeds in snagging ‘the best-looking guy in town’, the aforementioned TL, whose charms and eventual shortcomings take up much of the book. ‘I knew other girls would try and snatch him. But I knew they didn’t have my fire. What a fast lass I was then, in high heels, wearing flagrantly short miniskirts and hot pants, riding up a storm.’

She is so attractive that the sight of her as an Oxford student in ‘micro suede skirts’ in the Bodleian Library gives a thrill similar to ‘the most pleasurable orgasm’ to ‘the men who lived and probably died in the same library seats’.

Don’t imagine, though, that Yasmin is just clever and sexy. She was and is also ‘a pretty top dancer’. ‘No one could do the cha-cha, bossa nova, twist or jive better than me. (My body moves with scandalous sensuality even now, well into my fifties. This is wantonness I was born with.)’ Nor can we overlook her astonishing culinary skills. ‘How come, I am often asked by indigenous Brits, how come you can make such splendid scones and Victoria sponges?’ Her spicy roast chicken (marinated in garam masala and pomegranate paste) is so good that a boy who ate it when TL was a schoolteacher writes to her 30 years later to reminisce.

It would be foolish to complain about such boasting and narcissism. Autobiographies need a degree of shamelessness, and Alibhai-Brown has nothing as shameful as Rousseau to confess. Where Rousseau exposed himself to small girls, Alibhai-Brown is the one who finds herself nearly molested, aged five, on a beach, by a wavy-haired stranger. Her well-developed sense of self enables the narrative, for the most part, to zip along. She has delivered parts of the book as a very enjoyable, sometimes dazzling one-woman show (I saw her last year at the Bath Literary Festival), and at times – particularly in the delightful early sections set in Uganda – you need to imagine her standing on stage in her glowing sari, putting on voices.

Where the self-unburdening sometimes becomes a bit hard to take is in the many gloomy sections concerning her break-up with TL, an expert on vole propagation. We have to hear a good deal about his affair with ‘Rapunzel’, a blonde Cambridge temptress, culminating in a Christmas skiing holiday when TL admits he is leaving and Yasmin threatens ‘simply’ to ‘walk out into the snow and have done with it’. There is a lot about TL’s inadequacies as a father to Karim, her ‘beloved son’. ‘Try to understand what I don’t and can’t,’ she asks us: how could TL go from a devoted new man with a blue corduroy baby sling to an adulterous monster who walks away ‘as if the child was one of those unfortunate little mistakes one makes’. As for Karim, he is presented as a prodigy more remarkable still than his mum: ‘at the age of eight, Karim, smart and super-confident, passed the entrance exams for Colet Court, the prep school at St Paul’s, the best public school in London. It was a moment out of fiction.’ Boasting and confessing on your own behalf is one thing: it is less defensible when you do it on behalf of your progeny, something Alibhai-Brown may be aware of when she expresses the wish that one day both TL and the ‘beloved son’ will write their own versions of the story which ‘will contradict mine on every point’. (I have to say that I hope they don’t: I already know enough of this particular divorce.)

Alibhai-Brown’s marital confessions may be no more embarrassing than Rousseau’s descriptions of his love affair with Mme de Warens (‘Child was my name, Mamma was hers’). But this is meant to be a food book. ‘A mouth-watering collection of recipes’, announces the dust-jacket, and so they are. It is obvious that Alibhai-Brown is indeed an excellent cook. Her instructions can be a little vague but there’s no doubting the zing of lime juice and green chillis, the earthy depth of cumin, the milky sweetness of the puddings scented with cardamom. She is justly proud of her mother’s coconut dhal recipe, in which three kinds of dhal (moong, masoor and channa) are simmered with creamed coconut, then combined with a spicy tomato sauce flecked with green coriander and eaten with hard-boiled eggs.

Recipes are an added bonus in an autobiography and it should be possible to tell a life through food, but only if the life isn’t reduced to a matter of gastronomy. At one point in the Confessions, Rousseau remembers a particularly enchanting collation he takes with two pretty women:

To keep our appetites in play, we went into the orchard, meaning to finish our dessert with cherries. I got into a tree, throwing them down bunches, from which they returned the stones through the branches. One time, Mademoiselle Galley, holding out her apron, and drawing back her head, stood so fair, and I took such good aim, that I dropped a bunch into her bosom. On her laughing, I said to myself: ‘Why are not my lips cherries? How gladly would I throw them there likewise.’

He doesn’t feel obliged afterwards to give us a recipe for cherry pie.