Few countries celebrate religious and cultural festivals with greater passion, imagination and joy than India. And among the many festivals of this gloriously diverse, multicultural nation is Christmas.
When we were small, our mothers baked our birthday cakes themselves. They also baked all the Christmas cakes for the house. There was nothing very unusual about that. However, in the 1950s and ’60s, they may have been the only mothers doing their baking in ammunition boxes left behind by British troops. Mother tells me that all the girls who were members of the Worldwide Guild were taught cake-baking by the missionary Tanquist’s wife.
After the War, the cake baking course was taught both to students and their older siblings who had dropped out of school. The baking students included my mother and her friends. The course was multi-pronged. The girls learned to speak English after the baking; they were also taught English songs. At the end of every lesson, they always stood in a circle and said something called a ‘sentence prayer’ where everyone in the circle had to pray one sentence in English. Not everyone managed to pray when their turn came. However, they all learned to bake cakes and as the years passed, this tradition was handed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter and from daughter to granddaughter.
Mrs Tanquist baked her cakes in a big mud oven, but her students ingeniously used ammunition boxes after the men discovered they were airtight and preserved heat very well.
I remember our family’s ammunition-box oven very well. It was a heavy rectangular box, and it fit very well over our wood fire. But the heat regulator did not come with the box, as the Brits probably never imagined it would be used for such an activity after the boxes had served their primary purpose. So, the baker had to sit by the wood fire, constantly stoking it and eventually reducing the fire to embers when a good half hour or twenty minutes had passed. Mother says they always timed the cake. If an overeager baker opened the door during the baking process, the rising cake would fall flat on its face. I can still hear Mother admonishing us, ‘Don’t you open the door yet!’ as we sat impatiently on cold winter nights waiting for our cakes to be done.
In our family, special evenings were reserved for cake baking because it involved so much labour. First, Mother would mix the flour, eggs, melted butter, sugar and baking powder in a bowl and a burly male relative would be put to work to stir the batter. She strictly insisted that the batter be stirred clockwise. Naturally the batter-stirrer would slow down after some time. When that happened, we happily took over. But our little arms quickly tired from the exercise. It would take at least an hour of stirring batter to get a consistency that was smooth enough to satisfy Mother.
While the stirrers were busy, the others would be lining cake tins with buttered paper. My elder sister usually took charge of the preparation, cutting up white paper with precision into the exact shapes of the cake tins. Once the batter was ready, it was carefully poured into the tins which went into the heated ammunition box and the waiting would begin. Looking back, I see that the labour created good bonding as the whole family participated in it together.
One Christmas, my best friend and I decided we would bake a cake. When the batter was ready, I expected her mother to bring out their family’s ammunition box and put it on the fire. To my surprise, they filled a big pot with sand and warmed the sand on the fire. When the sand became very hot, we were taught to make tin-sized depressions in it, and place our cake tins in them. The baking took less than an hour. Our cakes were soon ready. The advantage of the sand-layered pot was that the sand prevented the cakes from getting burned. With the ammunition boxes, the one problem that we never managed to correct was that the cakes would burn quite quickly if not taken out precisely in time. Back then, it never occurred to us to write to the British army and ask if they could correct this design flaw. And now, forty years later, it has become irrelevant since electric ovens can be bought from the Army Canteen or from the departmental stores.
I count it a great privilege to have grown up in a period when mothers made such ingenious use of abandoned ammunition boxes. I shall tell my grandchildren with great relish of the good old days when Christmas cakes tasted way better because they were made with love and watchfulness and applied creativity.
The featured image is the front cover art from the book. Illustration by Sister Marie Claire.