Taste of Life: When gruel was sign of famine, hunger and missionary zeal

ByChinmay Damle
Feb 02, 2023 04:10 PM IST

Rev JC Denning headed the Christian Mission at Narsingpur near Poona. In the early 1880s, he had started an orphanage at Narsingpur with seventy boys

The discourses of hunger and denial are usually complex. Material deprivation contended with “gastronomic moralising” foist abstinence upon others under the guise of sophistication or piety.


Rev JC Denning headed the Christian Mission at Narsingpur near Poona. In the early 1880s, he had started an orphanage at Narsingpur with seventy boys. One morning, in May 1898, a woman came to his door and told him that she wanted to sell her children to him, a 12-year-old girl and 2 younger boys. She wanted $5 for the girl and thought nobody would buy the boys. She gave Denning all three children for nothing, signing a stamped paper releasing all claims.

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Another woman brought three boys. She said she could not part with the baby, so Denning took the other two. A Muslim man brought his boy to Denning’s wife. He said he was a farmer, but his fields had produced nothing for the last two years, and they both were starving; he had heard that the “padri” (priest) would take children. Denning took the boy and sent him to Rev Mr Bruere in Poona. One day ten mothers came with their daughters and left them with Denning and his wife.

Deccan had been reeling under severe famine then. Many hundreds of fields had not been sown at all. The prices of food had doubled and nobody could find any work. People were dependent on the government for help, but it was doing little to fill the bellies of the hungry.

Several hundred people had died of hunger and diseases like diarrhoea, intestinal gangrene etc. induced by starvation. In a letter written to a mission in Bombay, Denning wrote that he had seen many a child, many a man, and many a grandmother dying by the roadside.

During this time of distress, gruel came to the rescue of the Europeans in Deccan.

A group of British officers advocated the organisation of extensive relief works, which included free food for all in camps constructed at specific sites. Another group deprecated this and recommended that villagers should be kept in their homes, and only the young and the sickly should be fed “conjee” or gruel, while the healthy and robust worked to earn food. In other words, there should be works with food for the strong, and food, i.e., gruel, only for the weak and incapable.

Gruel is a thin porridge or soup that is often drunk, rather than eaten. It consists of some type of cereal, such as ground oats, barley, wheat, or rice, heated or boiled in water or milk.

The British were “gruel-eaters” before the “wheat-eating revolution” began in Britain in the seventeenth century. The traditional British diet consisted of a mix of grains and legumes like barley, rye, oats, and peas. Most of Britain was too cold to grow wheat. A working-class person typically ate porridge with water or milk, an oatcake, and cheese. This changed rapidly after wheat became a popular crop.

Hunger was an important force at play in the social fabric of Victorian Britain. Diets in Victorian England revealed class disparity and nationality. The English preferred wheat when they could afford it, the Scottish ate oats, barley, and rye, while the Irish ate potatoes. Wheat was the foundation of civilisation and the white race was an echo of the English colonial voice.

No wonder, the “upper class” Victorian England started despising gruel. The word “porridge” came to be used as a euphemism for a prison sentence. The origin is obscure but probably comes from the fact that in Victorian times one of the principal food items for prisoners was water gruel, a very thin porridge made with water and oats. It was also called “stir”, possibly derived from the fact that the gruel had to be well stirred before eating, as all the oats would sink to the bottom.

Gruel was served to orphans as an economic necessity and was often associated with feeding the sick.

Hunger was a central and pernicious part of life for much of the population. In 1847’s “Jane Eyre”, written by Charlotte Bronte, Miss Temple feeds the starving schoolgirls at Lowood only to be chastised by Mr Brocklehurst, who claims that “when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”

Charles Dickens used gruel as a metaphor for cruelty. In his novel “Oliver Twist”, Oliver is born into poverty and misfortune and raised in a “workhouse” with too many children and too little food.

The room, in which the boys are fed, is a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron, and assisted by one or two women, ladles the gruel at mealtimes. Each boy has one porringer, and no more – except on occasions of great public rejoicing when he has two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

One night, after being served his portion of gruel, Oliver asks for a second helping. This is unacceptable, and Oliver is sent to work as an apprentice to an undertaker. Eventually, after suffering repeated mistreatment, Oliver runs away to London.

The British brought many of their beliefs and notions to India. Out of the want to prove their superiority, they endorsed the rejection of certain local foods and cooking practices, while accepting, acknowledging, incorporating, and appropriating others. As a result, dishes like gruel did not become a part of their regular diet. Porridge was had for breakfast, or “chhota hazari” as it was called, but not gruel. Children studying in orphanages and missionary schools were served bread or chapatti.

But the famine left the British with no choice but to cook, serve, and drink gruel. Some European missionaries and wives of government officers started “poorhouses” in and around Poona. Many poor Europeans ate there. Gruel was the main meal.

Denning and his wife were feeding 1,100 people in the “poorhouse” at Narsingpur. Twenty Europeans lived in the village then. The deputy commissioner had provided them with some funds, the rest was raised by the wives of European officials. Thousands more were working on government relief works. People formerly well-to-do were now on charity.

For a long time, Mrs Denning sent buckets of gruel twice a day from the local church’s kitchen to the weak and the sick in the “poorhouse”. Another such “poorhouse” soon came up at Budhgaon, a village not far away. This establishment housed 550 inmates. Gruel was served there too.

After the famine, some officers from the sanitation department started a campaign to include gruel in the diets of military prisoners.

This story is for next week.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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