During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.
Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?
The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.
The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.
I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.
A few days ago, some friends invited us to visit them one evening. We sat with them for several hours, drinking and eating light snacks. As time passed, my stomach began rumbling and I wondered when we were going to eat dinner. This reminded me of an evening many years ago when I lived in Kent (UK).
Some Americans invited me to dinner. To reach them, I had to drive through the countryside for two hours. When I arrived at about 7 pm, I was offered a sandwich. I refused this, muttering that I would wait for dinner.
Another guest arrived. We sat talking and the time passed pleasurably. However, there was no mention of dinner or any food at all during the rest of the evening. At 10 pm, I began my two hour return journey without having eaten. As I drove home, it dawned on me that the sandwich I had been offered was actually the only evening meal that my hosts were planning to serve.
When I reached home at midnight, starving, I prepared a hasty snack.
On reflection, on the recent occasion, we had visited our friends assuming that we would have a pre-dinner drink before going out to dinner. In reality, they had only invited us for a drink; they had not mentioned dinner.
The cafetière (or ‘French press’ or ‘coffee plunger’) has been around for 90 years. It was first invented in 1929. It achieved popularity in England much later. I remember my mother bought one in the 1960s. It was then a ‘trendy’ way of making coffee. My mother used this device to make coffee for some time until one evening something awful happened.
Her brother-in-law, my uncle, was preparing coffee in a cafetière one evening, when suddenly the plunger, which usually needs some pressure to force down the coffee beneath the filter, suddenly shot downwards very quickly. As it did so, boiling hot coffee shot up and burnt my uncle’s hand and arm extremely badly. After this unfortunate accident, my mother, who was a very cautious and safety-conscious person, abandoned using her prized plunger, and reverted to making coffee through conical filter papers.
Although my mother would never use a cafetière again, I continued to do so. Many years after her premature death, I had a strange experience whilst plunging the coffee after feeding dinner to some guests. My wife had filled the cafetière vessel and had left the coffee to ‘infuse’. It was my job to take the plunge so to speak. I pressed down the plunger cautiously. It was harder than usual to press it. The plunger descended a little, but when I removed my hand it began rising. I pushed it again, getting it down a little further, but again the plunger rose up towards its staring position. I kept repeating the procedure, and each time the plunger rose a little. Eventually, I managed to get the plunger to remain near the base of the coffee container, and I poured out the coffee into cups.
I was mystified by our plunger’s abnormal behaviour.
After the guests had left, I opened up the cafetière to clean it. Beneath the plunger amongst the compressed coffee grounds, I disovered the reason for the odd phenomenon. Hidden amongst the dregs of the coffee there was a stainless steel tea spoon. Its previously straight stem had been gradually bent into a U-shape whilst I was trying to press down the plunger. What amazed me when I thought about it afterwards was that it was lucky that the glass vessel was tough enough to withstand the pressure exerted by the spoon on the glass while I was inadvertantly bending it.