As a dealer of rare cookbooks, I see numerous fascinating titles come through my shop. Some I see time and again, others only once. And once in a blue moon, a book piques my interest so much that I can’t stop thinking about it. Miss Williams’ Cookery Book, published in 1957, is one of those. As I began to research the book and describe it for sale, I realized I couldn’t let anyone have it. I needed it to stay with me.
Miss R. Omosunlola Williams was born in Lagos, Nigeria, of Yoruba parentage. After graduating from high school, she won a scholarship to attend a three-year course in domestic science in England at the University of Bristol. She returned to Nigeria and taught domestic science around the country, becoming conversant with the cookery of both the Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria. Unlike many of her predecessors, Miss Williams was happy to teach girls about the cookery of her own country, rather than just that of England or continental Europe. She is one of the first Nigerians to author a cookbook in that country. Her equanimity in teaching cookery to both urban and village dwellers was both useful to them and useful to future food anthropologists.
Miss Williams makes it clear she is fighting an uphill battle to teach young women in Nigeria to cook, because their mothers and grandmothers had no formal training, and apparently were rather joyless about the prospect. In fact, her first sentence begins: “Cooking is regarded in Nigeria by some women as an unpleasant task or a necessary evil. Yet cooking is an art that should be enjoyed. It is as creative as it can be fascinating.” She pairs an interest in health and nutrition with skills for new cooks, and she blends in instructions for villagers to make their own utensils, anthill ovens, outdoor fires, and more. Part One gives these instructions, including advice on improvising cooking ranges and outdoor kitchens, and part two contains over 200 Nigerian recipes. The many variations of tribal cookery from different regions are also parsed. Many of the measurements are in cigarette tins. I couldn’t put this book down.
In beginning her chapter on the state of kitchen affairs in Nigeria in 1957, Miss Williams pulls no punches: “Kitchens are not what they should be in Nigeria. It is disgraceful to see where food is cooked in some places, and very little has been done to improve them throughout the years. Many houses are even known to be without kitchens, and cooking is done outside – an unsatisfactory plan from the hygenic point of view.” She goes on to describe the state of hygiene at food stalls from street food hawkers and discusses how that can be improved.
She continues by advising on marketing, how to purchase food safely and economically. But I think my favorite chapter is “Handy Weights and Measures.” In this section, she reveals the generational tide she is swimming against, again by blaming elders for embarrassing their progeny about any kind of formal training.
“The average Nigerian woman does not weigh and often does not bother to measure her ingredients before cooking. She trusts her sense of judgment and guesses what quantity of water or oil and other ingredients she thinks adequate for whatever she wants to cook. The Domestic Science teacher finds it difficult to get over to her girls the importance of measuring. They have seen mother and many women prepare many a good meal over many years without the use of scales or measures. Little do they realize that whatever good results are obtained follow after many failures and much waste.”
From the drawings by Mora Dickson of homemade ovens using kerosene tins and boards, to hand-carved utensils, homemade graters, and a woman grinding food on a large mortar, the reader can clearly see that the Nigeria of 1957 was straddling two worlds, old and modern. They also illustrate the vast difference between city and country at that time, just as the list of Nigerian foodstuffs show what was grown, harvested, and marketed across the region. Miss Williams was clearly responsible for bringing a new generation of cooks into the kitchen, and she taught them new skills to pass on to the next generation.
—Celia Sack is the proprietor of Omnivore Books
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