Our publisher was a formidable man, not exactly known for mincing his words. And he came to the point directly. “Would Ruskin and you like to do an Introduction to the old The Landour Cookbook?” ‘Why not?’ smiled Ruskin Bond.
With that said, two things were certain — he could write and I could type. But therein lay the rub — neither of us could cook. Neither of us had an eye for culinary detail. Bond’s cooking skills are limited to boiling eggs. It’s the peeling that is troublesome. I blame the eggshells; they are too crunchy in the mouth. Anyway, as co-accused, I plead guilty to being a sucker for anything that evokes the magic of Landour, a small cantonment adjoining Mussoorie in the Uttarakhand hills that was home to American missionaries for over a century. The good news? The cookbook already existed, its recipes jotted down by those hidden under the cloak of anonymity or lost in the mists of fading memory. This epicure’s delight has had an astounding life of a hundred years.
The Landour Cookbook was first published in 1930 — we first edited it in 2001. It must have been your typical mid-summer’s day at the community centre where the missionary wives had gathered to gossip, chitchat and swap recipes. They ended up with over 600 of them. It’s worth remembering that cooking exotica at higher altitudes is, at best, a daunting task. It’s not everyone’s piece of cake. Our Good Book warns the reader of the real perils of cooking at 7,500 feet in a section entitled ‘Making It On High — Cakes’. Be forewarned: “To make a hill on high is gratifying to the driver especially if the elevation is an unusually high one. To make a good cake on high has the same satisfaction.”
Between 1850 and 1950, the missionary community in India loved the hills. They all hung out at the Landour Community Centre which had a verandah with chairs, a card room, a sitting room housing a library (books all donated by members, no doubt) and a tennis court without the ball boys. This hillside was the summer headquarters of many missions where the Presbyterians gossiped with the Mennonites, the Methodists with the Pentecostals and the Baptists with the Episcopalians. All of them contributed one or two recipes, guaranteed to work in the hills. A good example of this are the tips for baking at over a mile high in the sky. “For leavening with baking powder or soda at 6,500 feet, reduce from 4 tablespoons to one at sea level. Never reduce the sugar. Use the maximum amount of eggs and increase flour by one tablespoon for every increase of 1,500 feet.”
Up until the 1950s and 60s, we were a bit old-fashioned. We lived in a charmed world where everything you needed was brought to your door. It was a world inhabited, or so it seemed then, by the “walas”: the doodhwala, the andawala, the sabziwala, the jam and acharwala, the kabariwala and the “ping-pingwala” as we called the fluffer. Foremost among these, at least for the children in the hill station, were the breadwalas or Landour’s bakers. They took to heart the Biblical injunction: “Is there a man with a soul so dead if his son asks him for bread will give him stone?” Carrying their blue tin trunks on their heads, they brought a treasure trove of pastries, breads and confectionaries. Among the many things you’d have found in it were milk bread, “twist”, fudge, stick jaw, marzipan, meringues and pastries: chocolate, pineapple, vanilla and strawberry, with a dab of red guava jelly. You can find them all in The Landour Cookbook, too. Try them.
Writer-photographer Ganesh Saili has edited The Landour Cookbook with author Ruskin Bond.