How about a curry? And not just any curry. Margaret Murray's curry.
I have had the opportunity to go through the archive of Gerald Lankester Harding, an English archaeologist who became Chief Curator/Director of the Department of Antiquities in Transjordan (now Jordan) between 1936 and 1956.
In the archive I discovered recipes for "Meat Curry" and "Dhall". Dated to 1937, they were written in Jerash, Transjordan by noted Egyptologist, folklorist, and historian of witchcraft Margaret Alice Murray (who is rumoured to have cast spells somewhere in the vicinity of University College London, where she was Assistant Professor of Egyptology). Born in India in 1863, Margaret Murray's family had lived in Calcutta for several generations.
Murray, in her infinite wisdom (and understandably given her intended recipient probably knew what he was doing), didn't include many measurements in her recipe beyond a specification for curry powder. My initial thought was that Harding and Murray might have had a favourite packaged curry powder brought from England. However, remembering Murray’s roots in India, and with a helpful hint from Harding’s executor that Harding always ground his spice mixtures himself, we opted to investigate making our own curry powder from scratch.
Fortunately there are quite a few Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks with recipes for curries and curry powder – some of them catering particularly for the growing Anglo-Indian community in India and in Britain. Madras curry seemed to be a particular favourite in the cookbooks that I browsed, and I discovered Colonel Wyvern's 1885 cookbook "for Anglo-Indian exiles" had a recipe for making curry powder that we adapted for use in a lamb curry.
Wyvern's recipe was for making curry powder in bulk, so my chum wisely decided to substitute tsps for lbs for our single-supper curry. (Said chum deserves full credit for adjusting Wyvern's recipe to suit our needs and was responsible for the majority of the cooking on the night, as well as kick starting the curry powder research.) We added slices of extra fresh ginger, and 1/2 tsp each of white pepper, cardamom seeds and garam masala to kick the flavour up a notch.
In my various researches and readings, I’ve come across quite a few references to food in archaeological contexts. Flinders Petrie's excavations were reputedly famous for frugality - and the stories include rumours of food poisoning amongst his staff from consuming food that had sat overnight in opened tins. There are some brilliant passages on the indigestion that this frugality produced in the biography of one of Petrie's many students, the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall. His description of Hilda Petrie helping her husband to release gastrointestinal tension is pretty entertaining. It wasn't all bad though - for some archaeologists multi-course meals with local potentates and occasional forays into local cuisine, a sight more fresh than tinned fare, were also 'on the menu'.
But back to our curry. My guests seemed to enjoy the final product - a fairly mild curry by today's standards but perfectly edible. I’m sure the flavour was enhanced by the ambience created with my rather large collection of interwar-era tunes.
Collingham, L. 2006 Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. London: Vintage Books.
Drower, M. 1985. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. London: Victor Gollancz.
Hankey, J. 2001. A Passion for Egypt: A Biography of Arthur Weigall. London: I. B. Tauris.
“Wyvern”, [Kenney Herbert, A]. 1885 Culinary Jottings: A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery for Anglo-Indian Exiles… Madras: Higginbotham and Co.
N. B. Murray’s actual recipe and more on the context in which it was produced is here. And special thanks to Petrie Museum curator Alice Stevenson who very kindly took time out of her day to show me Margaret Murray's exercise book for handwriting comparison!