Mother Sauces and Civilizing Processes: Writing Cuisine in Egypt and Morocco

By Anny Gaul
Submitted to Session P4886 (Colonialism and Culinary Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The first print cookbooks published in Egypt and Morocco present examples of hybridity that belie straightforward narratives of colonial rule. In the mid-twentieth century, French cuisine and British domestic science were both key influences shaping Egyptian foodways. Cookbooks addressing Moroccan housewives emerged in the context of both the French ethnographic tradition and contemporaneous Egyptian debates about gender and domesticity. Drawing on a corpus of cookbooks published between the 1930s and the 1970s, this paper situates Egyptian and Moroccan cookbooks in the “reciprocal, if convoluted, flow[s] of ideologies and social processes” experienced between metropole and colony (Clancy-Smith & Gouda, 1998) while grounding them in their material contexts.

Early Egyptian and Moroccan print cookbooks were the direct result of colonial exchange. In Egypt, the first such cookbooks written for housewives were published in Arabic by Egyptian women who had studied domestic science in England. The first such Moroccan cookbooks were written by European settlers or Moroccans writing in French. Though diverse, these cookbooks share several features stemming from conventions of European cookbook writing during this period. One example is the way they translate Egyptian and Moroccan recipes into a European culinary idiom through their treatment of sauce as a culinary category. For Egyptian author Nazira Niqula, French “mother sauces” like béchamel were ideal because they could offset the undesirable odors associated with local fowl, like duck, to produce a dish that both rooted in the Egyptian countryside and palatable to the sophisticated diner. Moroccan author Latifa Bennani Smires prefaces her book with a description of the four most prominent sauces used in Moroccan tajines, echoing the four mother sauces of French cuisine.

Sauces are a salient window into transformations of culinary cultures because they are closely linked to stove technologies: historians of French cuisine have noted the evolution of emulsified sauces like béchamel alongside new kinds of stoves. During this period in North Africa, new stove models manufactured in the metropole were often introduced to the colonies and produced locally soon after. The choice of cooking equipment was central to the sauces described above. I draw on archival material to contextualize these cookbooks against the background of the culinary equipment available to their authors and readership. This paper offers a narrative of culinary history aimed at broadening understandings of how both ideological conceptions of food and the material means connected to its preparation circulated and shifted within and among metropole and colony.