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.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.