Taste of Life: When Poona Cantonment Was One of the Most Hygienic Stations in the British Kingdom

On a hot summer morning, Sir William James Moore, the Queen’s physician, was in the vicinity of a regimental kitchen at Poona Cantonment. There, he saw, outside, in the open air, a large quantity of rice, which the cooks had put in baskets, in order to evacuate the water. This rice was entirely covered with a black substance, which he noticed, on the basket being lifted, consisting of a myriad of flies. He then entered the kitchen – swarming with flies – and witnessed the way the meat came out of the pots and swayed like it was ‘dog food’.

Moore viewed sanitation as an art. The government asked him to visit various military stations in India and make recommendations to ensure that hygiene was maintained and the troops remained healthy.

Poona in the 1850s was considered the cleanest of the British cantonments in India. It was also one of the greatest. Moore performed most of his experimental work at the station.

He believed that there was almost nothing connected with the diet of European soldiers in India which could be reformed more advantageously than the whole of bakery management as practiced at many Indian stations.

In the 1850s, European nutritionists considered milk and bread to be the two perfect articles of human nutrition, that is, those articles which contained within themselves all the elements necessary for the maintenance of the organism. . They believed that bread had the advantage over biscuits of its spongy structure, presenting a large surface area for the necessary action of saliva.

The sponginess of the bread was obtained by fermentation. The starch in the flour was induced to give off a small proportion of “carbon dioxide”, and this being retained by the tenacity of the surrounding gluten, the dough mass swelled and became spongy. To accomplish this purpose, yeast was used in Europe. In India, toddy, or a mixture of various spices, consisting of saffron, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and others, was used. A small portion of this mixture was mixed with flour for seven or eight days, and the resulting fermenting mass was used to leaven the bread.

Moore thought that another method of making bread could be introduced to India. The fact that fermentation was not necessary to produce starch and gluten for human consumption was evidenced by the many categories of people who prepared their “roti”, rejecting the process entirely.

Dr. Dauglish had then patented his process of manufacturing “aerated bread”, by which the dough distended under the effect of the mechanical pressure of the air, and was not affected by any chemical process, and not polluted even by the touch of a hand, the machine transforming into an oven a rapid succession of ready-to-use breads. This bread was just as light and spongy as fermented breads; it kept better, the “workers” ate more of it, and less meat when they used fermented bread; and at Guy’s Hospital in London, where it was tried on an experimental basis, none were left behind by patients, who used to reject much of the bread once supplied.

Baking, then, in any country was, to say the least, a most unhealthy occupation, and many found the habit of kneading dough with hands and feet sufficiently revolting. Bakeries in Britain, for the most part, were underground, hot, unventilated and undrained, gas-lit and clogged with the fumes of the weary men who worked there. The bakeries in India were even dirtier and revolting, being, generally, confined rooms, with a temperature above 100 degrees Celsius, dark and unventilated to a degree, and in which the workers kneaded the dough with their hands and feet. .

Moore inspected the bakery at Poona Station and found that its employees took “little trouble to keep them clean”. He wondered if Dr. Dauglish’s method could be tried in Poona.

The other “defect”, according to Moore, frequently encountered in Indian bread, was a large amount of sand in it, stemming mainly from the immense amounts of sand that floated through the atmosphere during hot plains winds. This dust penetrated everywhere, and the ground corn at these times could not be free of sand. The gritty bread hurt the soldier’s teeth; to avoid the unpleasant jerking sensation of chewing gritty matter, they frequently “bolted” the food of the soldiers, and thus indigestion in a double way, diarrhea or dysentery were excited.

Poona station then housed a permanent dentist. Moore recommended that two more dentists be employed at the station to treat the soldiers.

Moore was unhappy with the cooking arrangements at Poona Station. It was performed by Indian cooks who, according to him, paid little attention to cleanliness. Raw meat was inspected daily by officers, who also frequently saw it cooked and served on the men’s table; but little was known about the treatment benefits received “during the interval”.

Moore suggested that an almirah should be provided for the food of each mess, and not only the rations, but the kitchens and “bawarchies” should be inspected daily, that a check should be placed on the handling of these, which , “like the witch in Macbeth, could be frequently seen, in barracks and hospital kitchens, concocting nasty mayhem, of which the authorities literally knew nothing”.

At Poona, the food of the junior soldiers was brought to the table, not on crockery, but on dishes of common earth, of the material from which the water “glasses” were made, and which, because of their porosity, impossible to stay clean. They became saturated with daily use and, over time, were unpleasant to the nose and palate. Moore insisted that crockery, glass and even tablecloths be made available in every European mess and that the canteen fund be made available for this purpose.

The same diet and lack of appetite induced by the hot and enervating climate frequently led men to prepare or have prepared hot curries and stews, so greasy with ghee and rancid butter, and so hot with cayenne pepper. , that it was truly a matter of wonder to their European superiors how such mixtures were retained on the stomach. According to Moore, not only did these induce dyspepsia and indigestion, engender thirst and thus set the stage for intemperance, but the pungent spices seemed to have a direct influence on alcohol and damage the liver. He felt it would be hard to deny that the soldier made any dishes, but that they were prepared under supervision so that the spices and hot peppers could be kept within due limits.

Many of Moore’s recommendations were eventually implemented at Poona Station. Other stations were not so quick to follow. But his recommendations made Poona Cantonment one of the most hygienic stations in the British kingdom.

Chinmay Damle is a scientific researcher and cooking enthusiast. He writes here about the culinary culture of Pune. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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