- Endemic alcoholism in the Cape Winelands.
- Newfoundland’s cod stocks are rebounding.
- Should South African open up its poultry market to cheap American imports?
- Stories from the food bank.
- ‘Even with the country’s wealth of water, less than 10 per cent of people in Accra have reliable in-house taps, and less than half even have a shared tap on their property.’
- MS Swaminathan on the Green Revolution in India.
- A guide to egg labels in the US.
- Cooking for mental health.
- Climate change and wine.
- What does ‘natural‘ mean?
- What the collapse of Tesco says about contemporary capitalism.
- France’s ‘gastrono-diplomacy‘ drive.
- The rise and fall of the avocado.
- ‘I drink organic milk on welfare grounds, yet I have farmer friends who … would never switch to organic for the same reason…’
- On orthorexia.
- Kraft’s new boxed macaroni and cheese will not be any healthier.
- Beyond Meat.
- McDonald’s vs Shake Shack.
- Postdomesticity and butchery.
- Spam in Korea.
- Spam in Hawaii.
- The truth about drinking.
- Is cafeteria food the best?
- On food and cool.
- Kalk Bay’s fishermen.
- Jackson Pollock, cook. (Thanks, mum!)
- Jackson Pollock’s lemon pudding.
- A culinary tour of Cuba.
- Eating in China’s Paris.
- Ina Garten’s dinner party tips.
- Bullies don’t make good chefs.
- How to make ramen.
- A hundred issues of the Observer‘s Cook magazine.
- Make your own kombucha.
- What 2,000 calories looks like.
- Orange wine.
- What is the greenest tea?
- The lamingtonut.
- Researching ancient sheep DNA.
- An alimentary lexicon.
- A new way to whip cream.
- Green or red tractors?
- Patti Smith’s lettuce soup recipe.
- Picnics in art.
- Eating in Hue, Vietnam.
- Baking without measuring.
- Pineapple fibres.
- ‘But how do we know what it tastes like? The problem with lethal doses of poison is, there aren’t a lot of tasters’ notes.’
- Eat more reindeer.
- Uber’s fast-food service in New York.
- An introduction to romanesco broccoli.
- A ranch run by nuns.
- ‘We had to call the restaurants Indian, because nobody knew what Bangladesh was! We named ours Gandhi, because people knew Gandhi from the movies. Our next place was called Passage to India. That was another movie!’
- The Japanese cheesecake craze.
- The fig underground.
At the beginning of this year, The Economist published a worried article about the state of South Africa’s electricity supply. Eskom – the parastatal responsible for both generating and transmitting electricity across the nation – is in serious trouble. Rolling blackouts – called load shedding – have become increasingly the norm, as they’re used to reduce pressure on a grid already under strain mainly because of poor maintenance of transmission infrastructure:
South Africans now check electricity reports that read like weather forecasts: ‘There is a medium probability of load shedding today and tomorrow, with a higher probability on Thursday and Friday,’ said a recent Eskom tweet.
The introduction of artificial light – first gas lamps during the eighteenth century, then gradually electricity – profoundly shaped the ways in which human beings lived and worked. With lamps and bulbs to light the early mornings and nighttime, the workday lengthened, dinner moved much later in the day, and the hours of sleep were limited to the darkest period at night and the very early morning. Experiences of walking the city after dark changed. Sean Cubitt writes:
The history of invention in lighting technologies is extraordinarily brief: for millennia oil, fat and wax candles were the only lighting materials, and flame the only energy; their expense made darkness common for the poor majority. Only in the 1780s did mantles appear. Then the flood: limelight, arc light, gas lighting and incandescent electric light arrived hand in hand with the industrial city, its extension of the working day and its rush to produce new consumer rituals and needs in the illuminated windows of the department store. It is scarcely possible to imagine the megacities’ 24/7 lifestyles, the perpetual-motion machinery of modern manufacture, the constant flow of transport, without neon, incandescent and fluorescent lighting, headlamps and streetlamps.
The gradual electrification of domestic appliances, the slow spread of gas and electric ovens and stoves, and the growing availability of better refrigeration not only changed how people shopped, cooked, and ate, but also freed up women from intensive domestic labour. For most of the world’s population, though, access to expensive electricity remains precarious. When Sierra Leone declared a three-day curfew to limit the spread of ebola, many worried that households would be unable to store fresh produce in a hot country where refrigerator ownership is rare. Going to market there – and other parts of the continent – doesn’t represent some kind of commitment to seasonal, locally produced, and organic eating, but is, rather, a product of necessity. Even in wealthier countries, irregular power supply is the norm, not the exception. As Alex Christie-Miller, a journalist based in Istanbul, remarked recently on Twitter, ‘people tweeting too much about power cuts’ is really a case of #SecondWorldProblems. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written eloquently about the frequent power outages in Lagos:
Day after day, I awkwardly navigate between my sources of light, the big generator for family gatherings, the inverter for cooler nights, the small generator for daytime work.
Like other privileged Nigerians who can afford to, I have become a reluctant libertarian, providing my own electricity, participating in a precarious frontier spirit.
As we adapted to light – as electricity or power is described in Nigeria – so we have had to adapt to darkness, to hot days in summer, to very cold nights in winter. To periods of internet-lessness, to laptops with better batteries. This disruption of patterns of living shaped by electricity has forced us all into a series of – reluctant – accommodations. Solar panels and lamps, miners’ lamps, generators, inverters, hot boxes, and gas stoves all help to facilitate some form of normality. But we’ve had to change our routines too. Friends with light at night entertain those whose houses are in the dark. If my suburb is due to be load shed at the worst time – between 18:30 and 22:00 – I rush to finish as much work as I can before then, and spend the hours of darkness cooking because I have a gas stove, and then reading by my solar lamp.
Load shedding cuisine has become a feature of these blackouts too. Food magazines post lists of restaurants which continue to serve food – albeit frequently from a load shedding menu – when the power is cut. More often, we have to plan more carefully what and when we cook and bake. My mother managed to make enough brownies to feed 150 people at my sister’s wedding, and all through keeping a beady eye on load shedding schedules. A couple of weekends ago, unsure if the electricity would go off in the afternoon, I made a cheesecake that didn’t require baking, only setting in a fridge – and fridges and freezers remain cold without power unless their doors are opened too often.
Some tips for coping with an uncertain electricity supply (when schedules fail, and when the inevitable barbecue isn’t possible or desirable):
- If in possession of a gas hob: buy long matches to light the burners without toasting your fingers; invest in a stovetop, whistling kettle; remember that leftovers need to be easily reheated on the stove (and not in the oven or microwave); add cold sauces to hot, almost-cooked pasta in the pan in which the pasta cooked to avoid having to use more than one burner; couscous and bulgur wheat need only to be steeped in boiling water; toast can be made in a frying pan.
- A hot box, or wrapping a casserole dish in a thick blanket, will cook a pot of rice or a stew once they’ve been brought to the boil on a stove.
- Make bread in darkness, allow it to rise overnight, and then bake it the following morning.
- Open the fridge and freezer sparingly.
- Keep frequently used ingredients – oils, vinegars, tinned goods, spices, pasta, rice – at the front of cupboards for easy location in the gloom.
- Buy cooked chicken, fish, salami, and other protein to add to salads.
- Not all cakes and puddings need to be baked: cheesecake, fridge cake, mousse, trifle, fool.
- Plan ahead: allow things to defrost slowly instead of relying on the microwave; make dishes which can be eaten at room temperature; prepare sauces for pasta in advance.
More suggestions welcome.
In ‘A Temporary Matter,’ the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a couple working out the devastating consequences of a miscarriage find a new way of speaking the truth to each other during a series of planned power cuts. The darkness allows them to say all the things they’d kept secret or avoided thinking about during the short period of their marriage.
Partly because electricity has shaped our lives to such an extent that it’s unusual to live in complete darkness, we attach all sorts of positive meanings to the dark and being without light. In disconnection, we find connection. Temporary darkness becomes a space for contemplation, for self-reflection, for re-connection with one another and the natural world. I don’t have much patience for those who suggest that this current round of load shedding will be morally improving for South Africans – that it’ll teach us the virtues of slowness, for instance – as access to electricity still remains fairly uneven, despite the post-apartheid’s state’s success in increasing the numbers of households with electricity from 35% in 1990, to 84% two decades later. Also, as Ngozi Adichie writes:
I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of ‘no light,’ how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered.
Hospitals are exempt from load shedding in South Africa, but her point still stands. The country comes to a grinding halt whenever electricity cuts. Nonetheless, in a way, the darkness has become a space for a kind of truth-telling in South Africa: of an increasingly discredited state unable to fulfill one of its most basic functions – keeping the lights on.
I am, though, interested to see how frugal cooking habits shaped by unpredictable electricity will change over the next few years – and not only in South Africa. Increasingly fragile electricity grids are not limited to the developing world. How will food writers rewrite recipes that depend on long periods of braising in expensive-to-heat ovens? How will recipe books make allowance for the difficulties of keeping fresh produce, fresh? How will our shifting relationship with energy produce new ways of cooking and eating?
Sean Cubitt, ‘Electric Light and Electricity,’ Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30, nos. 7/8 (2013), pp. 309–323.
David E. Nye, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
A month or so ago, the food writer Todd Kliman was criticised for publishing an article in the Washingtonian titled ‘Can Ethiopian Cuisine become Modern?’ Although much of the response to the headline was, I agree, entirely justified – this is a silly, insulting question which invokes a stereotype about Africans being forever stuck in pre-modernity – Kliman’s article presents a considerably more nuanced argument. He is interested in why the Ethiopian food which he eats enthusiastically in Washington DC – a city famous for its Ethiopian restaurants – has changed relatively little in the past few decades. He writes:
But even though the cuisine’s profile has risen, the food itself hasn’t exactly evolved. Ethiopian restaurants have become markedly more fashionable over the last 20 years – gone are the days of sitting around woven-grass tables in dark, sometimes dank dens – but the cooking is hardly different from what you would have found four decades ago. A meal then is a meal now.
Put another way, Kliman investigates why Ethiopian food – particularly as it is prepared in the US – has not been made cosmopolitan. He acknowledges that what we now define as Ethiopian cuisine has only been so since the 1970s, when refugees fleeing the civil war opened restaurants selling cheap, delicious, and exotic-yet-familiar food to curious eaters in the West:
The educated elite who came to America in the ’70s might not look like culinary pioneers … but in selecting the roughly two dozen dishes they would introduce to American diners, they in effect codified the meaning of Ethiopian food in the West. (Most of these dishes come from the Gondar region … so just as Sicilian and Neapolitan red sauce and pizza came to mean Italian food to most Americans, Gondarean dishes have come to mean Ethiopian.)
These restaurants included special, vegetarian feast dishes on ordinary menus. They prepared puddings, added raw vegetables to salads, and cooked with boneless meat. Ethiopian cooking needed to be made palatable to foreign audiences. A good comparison to Ethiopian food in the US is Indian food in Britain. There, after the Second World War, largely Bengali cooks remade some of the dishes of the region to British tastes: not as hot, richer, and with a greater proportion of gravy to meat. The difference between these two cuisines, though, is that while it’s still possible to find old-fashioned curry houses across Britain, the numbers of restaurants specialising in regional cuisines and in remaking Indian cooking traditions have also proliferated. Kliman suggests that one reason for Ethiopians’ hesitancy to embrace change – both in the US and, interestingly, in Ethiopia – has to do with the country’s fraught politics. One diner in Addis Ababa explained:
He talked about the coup, the war, the decades of suppression and fear. Just as Ethiopians are enormously proud that their country has been called the birthplace of civilization, he explained, they’re proud of the fact that they’re eating the same food as their nomadic, tribal ancestors. (And, not least, eating that food in the exact same way: with their hands.) Continuity can be equated with conservatism, yes. But in a country with a long history of political uncertainty and upheaval, it also signals stability and comfort.
Ethiopian cuisine has long been shaped by nationalism. During the late nineteenth century, at a time when a national identity and the idea of an Ethiopian state were being forged, the Ethiopian court pioneered a kind of cooking which it described as the national cuisine. This was a selective vision of what the majority of Ethiopians ate, but, nonetheless, became the basis of the cooking in cafes and restaurants that began to open in the early 1900s. In the past three decades or so, this national cuisine has been adopted as somehow encapsulating Ethiopia’s national identity – despite the fact that it bears little resemblance to what nomads would have eaten even in the recent past.
But even if Kliman isn’t really interested in Ethiopian food becoming ‘modern,’ this question about diet and modernity is an important one. The appeal of Ethiopian restaurants to leftwing Americans in the 1970s (ironically in Washington DC, one of the key cities of the Enlightenment) was precisely because it seemed to speak to their anxieties about modernity in an era of oil crises, rising anxiety about ecological disaster, and the slow emergence of finance capital. This was – they believed – food from a simpler, gentler, pre-modern time.
But American progressives have not always been so enthusiastic about immigrant cooking. In his wonderful book Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (1988), Harvey Levenstein devotes a chapter to the New England Kitchen (NEK), a project established in Boston in 1890 by Edward Atkinson, Wilbur Atwater, and Ellen Richards. Concerned about the growing potential for strikes and other forms of collective action in American industry, Atkinson, a prosperous Boston businessman, was interested in ways of improving the living conditions of his employees without raising their wages. Nutrition seemed to offer one way of solving this conundrum – an impression confirmed by the hugely influential scientist of nutrition, Wilbur Atwater. Ellen Richards, a chemist and the first woman graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that ways needed to be found to apply scientific research and principles to the improvement – the modernising – of American households.
The result of this collaboration was the NEK, which was intended both as a research institute and as a school where working people could learn to prepare simple, nutritious meals. Initially, it appeared to be a raging success, attracting funding from Andrew Carnegie, and with branches soon opening in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. But the NEK model failed quickly, and largely because it could not attract adequate numbers of the urban poor to attend classes. This was due in part to the fact that the diet recommended by the NEK was distinctly dull, heavy in refined carbohydrates, and sparingly flavoured. (This was in a time before the discovery of vitamins, so NEK staff were dismissive of the usefulness of fruit and vegetables.)
The ethnically varied working poor – constituted mainly of Italians, French Canadians, the Irish, and Jews from eastern and central Europe – apparently served by the NEK were not interested in this bland, heavy ‘American’ cooking. Moreover, as Levenstein makes the point, the cuisines brought by these immigrants was far more than simply sustenance: they were the basis for new identities in a foreign land, they created social cohesion, and they were closely intertwined with women’s own positions within both families and communities. Although the NEK project failed in some ways, its work was picked up in the early twentieth century by nutritionists who campaigned for the ‘Americanisation’ of immigrant diets, arguing that the strong flavourings of foreign diets served only to overwork digestive systems and encourage drinking. Meals had to be eaten on plates, rather from bowls, and with knives and forks. Spaghetti was not deemed an appropriate dinner. This was modern eating for modern Americans.
This process was not particular to the US. Missionaries in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa taught converts on mission stations to eat with knives and forks, instead of communally, with hands. Home economics classes, the homecraft and Jeanes movements, and other interventions were intended to teach African women how to run modern, civilised homes shortly before and after independence.
But this suspicion of immigrant food and eating as being somehow both anti-modern and unpatriotic is worth considering. American nutritionists in the early decades of the twentieth century were also suspicious of how immigrant women bought their food, choosing to go to small delis owned by other immigrants, instead of larger grocery stores. South Africa is experiencing yet another wave of xenophobic violence again – attacks on foreigners, most of them from the rest of the continent, as well as China and south Asia, never really cease, but we’re witnessing a moment of particularly heightened violence – and targets are often small spaza shops in informal settlements. Locals accuse foreigners of buying stock in bulk, thus undercutting South African businesspeople. One of the implications of the closure of these businesses is hunger: they sell food at much lower prices than the big supermarkets, which also tend to be taxi- and bus-rides away.
Apartheid’s project of race classification insisted that the race categories into which the population was divided were culturally defined: Indian people in Durban ate curry, ‘Malay’ people in Cape Town cooked bredie. Apartheid ideologues went out of their way to erase centuries of entangled histories. A refusal to engage with others – a refusal to understand our reliance on others – simply continues that project.
Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).
Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).
Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 2009).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Last week, Maharashtra, India’s second-biggest state and home to the country’s commercial capital Mumbai, approved legislation which would ban the sale or possession of beef. The slaughter of cattle – cows, bulls, and calves – is now illegal. The right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power both nationally and in Maharashtra since May last year, argued that the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act saves an animal revered by many Hindus as holy. In their view, this represents a victory for pious Hindus.
As many have pointed out, although some Hindus may be in favour of a ban on the slaughter of a beast which they believe to embody divinity, the consumption and sale of beef in India is a complex and contradictory business. Firstly, the beef trade is controlled by the country’s Muslim minority, and beef is consumed mainly by them and the even smaller Christian portion of the population. Despite the fact that India is supposed to be a secular state, this law is aimed directly as these religious minorities. Vashna Jagarnath writes:
This ban will devastate the beef industry in Maharashtra, an industry that is largely run by the Muslim minority. It is not an isolated act. On the contrary, it is part of a longstanding attempt by the Hindu right, now backed with the power of the state, to make the lives of religious minorities increasingly difficult.
The ban provides the fascist project with two immediate benefits – exerting control over the minorities by sending a clear message about their increasingly precarious position in contemporary India; and dealing an economic blow to Muslims who trade in the bovine industry.
Secondly, this is not the first time that there have been efforts to control the slaughter of cattle in India. Several states have made the killing of cows illegal, and there are laws which limit the sale of beef in some areas. Indeed, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has taken nineteen years to pass. The Bill was sent to the then-President to sign into law in 1996, but it floundered – only when the BJP was re-elected in 2014 was it able to recommit to making the ban real.
And the ban has caused widespread outrage in India – and not only among Muslims and Christians. This is the third point: some Hindus eat beef too. Not all Hindus stick absolutely (religiously?) to vegetarianism. In 2001, the historian DN Jha faced harassment and attempts to prevent the publication of his – by all accounts fairly dry – monograph, The Myth of the Holy Cow. His not particularly fresh thesis was that Hinduism’s ban on beef is a relatively new phenomenon. Pankaj Mishra explains:
the cow wasn’t sacred to the nomads and pastoralists from Central Asia who settled North India in the second millennium BC and created the high Brahminical culture of what we now know as Hinduism.
These Indians slaughtered cattle for both food and the elaborate sacrificial rituals prescribed by the Vedas, the first and the holiest Indian scriptures. After they settled down and turned to agriculture, they put a slightly higher value upon the cow: it produced milk, ghee, yoghurt and manure and could be used for ploughing and transport as well.
Indian religion and philosophy after the Vedas rejected the ritual killing of animals. This may have also served to protect the cow. But beef eating was still not considered a sin. It is often casually referred to in the earliest Buddhist texts.
The cow became holy first for upper-caste Hindus between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries CE. These were the people who could afford not to spend most of their time producing their food. What changed, though, to identify vegetarianism with Hinduism?
The answer lies in the 19th century, when many newly emergent middle-class Hindus began to see the cow as an important symbol of a glorious tradition defiled by Muslim rule over India. For these Hindus, the cause for banning cow-slaughter became a badge of identity, part of their quest for political power in post-colonial India. Educated Muslims felt excluded from, even scorned by, these Hindu notions of the Indian past; and they developed their own separatist fantasies.
The implications of these nationalist beginnings during the Raj are now playing out in Maharashtra.
My final point is one that I found the most surprising: the effects of the ban on the export of beef. India not only exports water buffalo – the red meat of choice for many Indians – but twenty per cent of the world’s beef comes from India. The Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has implications, then, for the global food supply. Beef has been a commodity traded on national and international markets since improvements in transport – railways, shipping – and, more importantly, refrigeration, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, the price of beef dropped in the 1870s and 1880s because of the opening up of huge ranches in the west which were connected by rail to packing centres in large cities, most notably (and notoriously, given the revelations in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)) Chicago.
Something similar happened in South Africa, when the politician and wildly successful businessman Sir David de Villiers Graaff, 1st Baronet, pioneered refrigeration, allowing fruit, vegetables, and meat to be transported across the country’s vast interior without spoiling. His Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company – founded on the eve of the South African War (1899-1902), out of which De Villiers Graaff profited nicely – became one of the biggest meat packing businesses in Africa.
This and large-scale tax avoidance were at the root of the wild success of the Vestey brothers’ beef empire in the early twentieth century. By 1922, Vesteys had, as Ian Phimister writes, ‘interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar.’ The business shipped beef – produced cheaply under appalling conditions for both workers and cattle – around the world with ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat’.
The demand that drove the expansion of ranching and packing in the US, and De Villiers Graaff and the Vestey bothers’ businesses, was a growing middle-class taste for a meat once prohibitively expensive. Beef became – like sugar, chocolate, and tea – an affordable luxury once an industrialised food chain caused prices to fall. A similar process is currently underway in India, as an ever-bigger middle class chooses to add more beef to its diet. Although a small, committedly nationalist middle-class was partly responsible for making Hindu diets vegetarian in the nineteenth century, the opposite is happening now. Part of a global circulation of both commodities and ideas – middle classes in other developing nations are also eating more red meat – to what extent will this large middle class be able to negotiate the demands of right wingers keen to protect the lives of holy cows, and the attractions of a more varied and ‘modern’ diet?
Ebbe Dommisse, Sir David de Villiers Graaff: First Baronet of De Grendel (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2011).
Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).
I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
One of my favourite scenes in Alice in Wonderland is when the Caterpillar asks Alice ‘Who are YOU?’ Having spent the day being shrunk, telescoped, and grown again, Alice is at a loss: ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’ During a period obsessed with lineages, classes, and groups, Alice’s inability to slot herself into the correct category feels profoundly transgressive. Her ontological uncertainty—she remarks to the Caterpillar ‘I can’t explain MYSELF…because I’m not myself’—is more mature than the Caterpillar who will, as Alice argues, turn into a chrysalis and then a butterfly. Nobody is one thing for very long.
The same can be said, of course, for confectionary. Periodically, Britain convulses in a fraught debate over the status of the Jaffa Cake. In their commercial form these are rounds of Genoise sponge topped with orange jelly, and covered with chocolate. Supermarkets sell bright blue packets of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes in the same aisle as Digestive biscuits, Hobnobs, and shortbread. So to the uninformed, the Jaffa Cake is – despite its name – a biscuit.
But is it really? Legally, the Jaffa Cake qualifies as a cake. A long and complicated court case in 1991 ruled in favour of McVitie’s, confirming that the Jaffa Cake is indeed a cake and should not, then, be subject to VAT. Harry Wallop explains:
In the eyes of the taxman, a cake is a staple food and, accordingly, zero-rated for the purposes of VAT. A chocolate-covered biscuit, however, is a whole other matter—a thing of unspeakable decadence, a luxury on which the full 20pc rate of VAT is levied.
McVitie’s was determined to prove it should be free of the consumer tax. The key turning point was when its QC highlighted how cakes harden when they go stale, biscuits go soggy. A Jaffa goes hard. Case proved.
So this is a Cake which looks like a biscuit but is really a cake.
But this ontological uncertainty extends beyond its position as cake or biscuit. Jaffa Cakes are named after Jaffa oranges. (McVitie’s never patented the name Jaffa Cake, so chocolate-and-citrus flavoured confections are often described as ‘Jaffa.’) These were developed in Palestine – in and near the port city of Jaffa – during the 1840s. Sweet, seedless, and with a thick rind which made them perfect for transporting, Jaffa or Shamouti oranges became Palestine’s most important export in the nineteenth century. The arrival of Jewish immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s revolutionised citrus growing in the region. These new arrivals introduced mechanised, ‘scientific’ forms of agriculture, dramatically increasing yields.
By 1939, Jewish, Palestinian, and, occasionally, Jewish and Palestinian farmers working collaboratively, employed altogether 100,000 people, and exported vast numbers of oranges abroad. Britain was a major importer of Jaffa oranges, particularly after Palestine became a Mandated territory under British control in 1923. The Empire Marketing Board – which promoted the sale of imperial produce – urged Britons to buy Jaffa oranges, something picked up by McVitie’s in 1927 with the invention of the Jaffa Cake.
Jaffa oranges were – and, to some extent, are – held up as an example of successful Palestinian and Israeli co-operation during the interwar period. But after 1948, the same oranges became a symbol of Israel itself. Similar to the boycott of Outspan oranges during apartheid, organisations like BDS have urged customers not to buy Jaffa oranges as a way of weakening Israel’s economy and demonstrating their commitment to a free Palestine. (Jaffa oranges are no longer, though, a major Israeli export, and are grown in Spain, South Africa, and elsewhere.)
The changing meanings of Jaffa Cakes – cake, biscuit – and their constituent ingredients – symbol of collaboration, symbol of oppression – show how the categories into which we slot food are themselves constructs. (We could, really, compare apples and oranges.) But also, the Jaffa Cake helps to draw our attention to how taxes, trade agreements, and the politics and practicalities of shipping shape the ways in which we eat, buy, and think about food. Last year, the supremely British McVitie’s – producer of the Jaffa Cake, the most widely recognised biscuit (I mean, cake) in Britain – was sold to Yildiz, a food group based in … Turkey.