Arrowroot

One of the international ingredients that is frequently used in the invalid recipes studied throughout this project is arrowroot. But what is arrowroot, and where did it come from?

Illustration of ‘Arrowroot Plant (Maranta arundinacea).
Fig. 1 (left), stem, leaves and flowers; Fig. 2 (right), tubers.’ from the Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 (image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1911_Britannica_-_Maranta_arundinacea.png)

Arrowroot is a starch derived from the root or rhizomes of a tropical plant, which is typically Maranta arundinacea but there are several different varieties.

Two invalid recipes using Arrowroot in the Glasgow Cookery Book.

As an ingredient, it is common in invalid recipes across different publications from within the GCU archival collections, and across long periods of time. It is typically used as the base for a pudding or soft, liquid substance which would be easy on the invalid’s digestion. Indeed, you can still buy arrowroot in health shops today, or use it as an ingredient in baking or as a thickening agent.

The recipes from the Glasgow Cookery Book above are typical, as arrowroot flour is blended with milk, sugar, and perhaps an egg to make different variations of the same mixture. Arrowroot recipes are included in the cookbooks of Margaret Black, Mary MacKirdy, and other older publications in the collections like W. T. Fernie’s Meals Medicinal, with “Herbal Simples” (of Edible Parts): Curative Foods from the Cook; in place of Drugs from the Chemist (1905). The inscription of this book shows that it belonged to Dorothy Melvin, Principal of the GWSCDS. Fernie’s book provides the following definition of arrowroot:

There is also a mention of it in the Examination Questions within Sick Nursing Examination Questions: A Catechism on Home Nursing and Hygiene, which was published in Glasgow in 1909 to help nursing students revise for their exams:

  1. Examination Questions on Invalid’s Diet
    1. ‘What forms of food are generally most suitable for an invalid?
      Answer. – Nutritive and digestible, and mostly in a fluid form. Milk, eggs lightly cooked, meat-juice, sago, arrowroot, cornflour, junket, etc.; occasionally a little wine, such as sherry, burgundy, Moselle, or port, or brandy and water, or whisky and seltzer, or some sound malt liquor, pale ale, stout, etc.’ (1909: 10-11)

These entries show that arrowroot was commonly used in invalid cookery, so much so that it became integrated into the teachings of the GWSCDS. Women in Glasgow would thus be learning to cook and prescribe it for invalids. Even though it was being fed to people feeling under the weather across Scotland, however, arrowroot is not a native Scottish ingredient. It’s origins are far-flung, and tangled in a long history of colonialism.

J. S Handler writes that French and English colonists were introduced to arrowroot in the seventeenth century, by Island Caribs of the Lesser Antilles who used the root as a cure for wounds (including those inflicted by poisoned arrows, which may explain the plants name) and ‘as a preferred food for young children and nursing infants’ (1971: 52). After this it was moved to be grown and harvested around the colonies, and throughout the eighteenth century continued to be ’employed for a variety of medical and dietary purposes’ (Handler 1971: 55). From the very beginning of the colonial appropriation of arrowroot, then, it was linked to health, and ‘by the late 18th and 19th centuries, arrowroot starch, boiled into a pap or gruel or made into a jelly or pudding mixed with boiling water or milk, was often recommended for the diets of convalescents or invalids’ (Handler 1971: 58). The mixtures and puddings in the twentieth-century texts from the GCU’s collections were thus part of a very long tradition of using arrowroot in invalid cookery.

Nineteenth-century texts shows that arrowroot, like sugarcane or cotton, continued to be grown in British colonies on plantations and then imported to Britain. In The English Housekeeper’s Book (1860) by J. H. Walsh, there is an entry on arrowroot which notes that it is ‘generally sold as Maranta or West India arrowroot, or sometimes as Bermuda or Jamaica arrowroot’ (1860: 122). These names speak to the fact that it was grown overseas in the West Indies, South America and Caribbean. Indeed, in Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1875), the entry on arrowroot says that as well as the West Indies and Barbados, it was ‘brought into the market from Bermuda, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Brazil, the East Indies, Natal, and Sierra Leone’ (1875: 213). In Tropical Agriculture (1877), P. L. Simmonds goes into great detail about the differences between the types of ‘colonial arrowroots’ grown in these places, as well as including an entry describing the more recent cultivation of ‘arrowroot in several of the Australian colonies’ (1877: 348). Arrowroot was thus a product of British colonies all over the world, whether they were the more recent colonies settled in Australia or the older exploitative colonies situated in countries like Jamaica.

‘Plan of arrowroot grinding mill, and two sets of copper cylinder washing-machines, with the connecting machinery for driving them, the washing-agitator being driven, the washing agitator being driven from the connecting with leathern belts’ (Hunt 1877: 212)

These texts give insight into how much arrowroot was coming to Britain from overseas. Simmonds writes that ‘the demand for colonial arrowroots has not progressed very rapidly, owing, probably, to the imitation potato starch, and the corn and rice flours or starches so largely sold’ (1877: 343). Even despite this lack of growth, the 1860s and 70s saw large amounts of arrowroot importation, as seen here:

The last slide shows the values of exported sugar from places where arrowroot was also grown, so in comparison to the sugar trade arrowroot was a minor product. Nevertheless, it still had value as a crop that British people sought to take advantage of, and it is significant to note that this value was always linked to health.

In nineteenth-century Britain, the use of arrowroot had moved on from poultices and poison cures. Instead, in line with shifting perceptions on health and nutrition, it was considered in terms of its nutritive value. Hunt writes that Liebig, the manufacturer of Liebig’s Extract of Beef (read more about this here), ‘places the powers of arrowroot, as a nutriment to man, in a very remarkable point of view, when he states that 15 pounds of flesh contain no more carbon for supplying animal heat by its combustion into carbonic acid in the system than 4 pounds of starch’ (1875: 213). This returns to Margaret Black’s discussion of ‘nitrogenous, carbonaceous, and mineral foods’ in Household Cookery and Laundry Work. Arrowroot was thus not just a mild, smooth food that was easy on an invalid’s digestion, but was also thought to provide just as much (if not more) energy as meat. As with other starchy foods like potatoes, it was far cheaper than meat. It was therefore useful as a ‘health food’ on numerous levels, and its inclusion in these Scottish cookbooks was informed by a vast history of health-related practices – from curing arrow wounds to fueling the body with starch.

What cannot be undermined, however, is that arrowroot was a crop born out of the exploitation of enslaved people. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century these links were clear. After citing Liebig’s approval of arrowroot’s nutritive qualities, Hunt writes that:

If a savage, with one animal and an equal weight of starch, could maintain life and health for a certain number of days, he would be compelled, if confined to flesh alone, in order to procure the carbon necessary for respiration during the same time, to consume five such animals. (Hunt 1875: 213).

While this observation is concerned with how starch could fuel the body for longer than animal flesh, the use of the word ‘savage’ belies the racist, colonialist attitude towards people who were native to the countries in which arrowroot was grown. Crops including arrowroot which were cultivated for British use in the colonies were grown, harvested and processed by enslaved and colonies populations – both African slaves who were brought to the colonies to work the land or native populations who were displaced and exploited.

Scotland played a large part in establishing and profiteering from the slave trade. By the end of the eighteenth century Scotland owned 30% of the estates in Jamaica, which was a huge population of slaves in comparison to the small population of Scotland. Glasgow was frequently titled the ‘second city of Empire’ due to its ports, and the city was made wealthy by merchants who were profiting from slavery.

Arrowroot field with three workers and wagon, Coomera River. 1897.
Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 2237

Indeed, even historical uses of arrowroot were linked with slavery and exploitation. Rebecca Earle discusses how in the eighteenth century, colonial foods were approached from the perspective of trying to bolster a nation’s wealth by providing ‘the healthy and agreeable food necessary to create this energetic workforce’ (2017: 174). ‘British enthusiasts’ insisted that arrowroot ‘could form the basis of an improved diet for “natives” in India and “our new African settlements”‘ (Earle 2017: 174). Because they were seen as nutritive, energising, and were cheap to produce in comparison to livestock or other crops, foodstuffs like arrowroot and breadfruit were seen by colonisers as a perfect food source for workers. This perspective on the health benefits of arrowroot thus has a more sinister resonance, as a cheap product that would keep slaves alive so they could carry out work that lined British pockets. As Earle succinctly puts it:

These eighteenth-century dreams of beneficent starchy
foods for natives were thus inherently connected to European ideals of
good governance, which justified such interventions in the eating practices
of ordinary people, and obscured, at least to the dreamers, the structures of
power and coercion that made them appear necessary. (Earle 2017: 175)

Even after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, laborers working in the colonies would have been overworked and kept poor. Whether it was exploited peoples growing arrowroot for exportation to Britain, or being kept alive on a meagre diet, the ingredient was linked these violent practices as a direct result of colonisation. While those connotations are not immediately clear within the invalid recipes that use arrowroot in these collections, tracing it back in time shows how international ingredients were appropriated into Scottish cooking practices as part of a much bigger picture of colonialism. What seems like an innocuous ingredient in an invalid recipe, then, has a darker history.


References:

Earle, Rebecca. 2017. ‘Food, Colonialism, and the Quantum of Happiness’, History Workshop Journal, 84: 170-193

Handler. J. S. 1971. ‘The History of Arrowroot and the Origin of Peasantries in the British West Indies’, The Journal of Carribean History. 2: 46-93

Hunt, Robert. 1875. Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (London: Longmans, Green, And Co)

Simmonds, P. L. 1877. Tropical Agriculture: A Treatise on the Culture, Preparation, Commerce, and Consumption of the Principal Products of the Vegetable Kingdom (London: E & F N Spon)

Walsh, J. H. 1860. The English Housekeeper’s Book: Being Practical Advice for Purchasing the Supplies of the House (London: Routledge, Warn and Routledge)

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