Cats, pineapples, and I

We recently adopted a cat. She’s an all-white elegantly dainty little thing with a pretty pink nose and large topaz eyes. She had been left behind when her previous owners emigrated (rude, but good for us). Zoë (her name) is a pure-bred Turkish Angora cat, who – as a kitten – would have cost upwards of R10 000 (€522/$588/£470), Joy the cat rescuer tells us when we went to meet her. 


Turkish Angoras and other equally ‘expensive’ cat breeds are bought because of this fact, like one would buy a Ferrari or a Rolex or, in 18th Century colonial America, a pineapple: as a masturbatory display of wealth and status.

Pineapples were ‘discovered’ (it clearly only counts if a white man does it) in South America in 1493 by Columbus, who ‘discovered’ many things, which led to a surge of desperate Northern Americans and Europeans trying to grow the tropical fruit in a distinctly un-tropical environment. The few smart cookies who worked out that you could mimic tropical conditions in a greenhouse cashed in big time. In the 1700s in America, if you had a spare $8000 (in today’s money) you could buy a pineapple to put in your house. It wasn’t just a pineapple, though – it might as well have been a sign saying “I have money, bitches”. If you weren’t lucky enough to afford to buy a pineapple, you could rent one to adorn your arm at parties, like a spiky escort. And if you were super cool, you could even build yourself a pineapple-shaped house.

I’m Charles II and I have a pineapple na-nana-na-na, oil on canvas, c. 1675

Food has long been inextricably linked to wealth and status. The presence of sugar (which at one point cost 6 minutes of a slave’s life) in a household was a sufficient indication of that family’s wealth. Salt has been used as currency, in ritual sacrificial offerings, and as part of a soldier’s wages (the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt salarium); the Austrian city of Salzburg (literally ‘salt castle’) is named after the area’s greatest source of income; and if you are the ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘worth your salt’, you are doing quite well. And my privilege at being able to order extra avo on the side of my breakfast (at R30 for a quarter of an avocado) does not elude me.

It’s snobbery that drives one to purchase an expensive cat, just as it’s snobbery that supports the entire French patisserie industry (why else would you spend so much something so sickly-sweet? I’m looking at you, macaroons – PARDON – macarons). It’s also snobbery that fuels language prescriptivists. Those grammar police who just wait for you to leave your participles dangling, or say “John and me” instead of “John and I” so they can pounce. The purists who think slang and colloquialisms are debased forms of a language, and start twitching when the Oxford English Dictionary adds words like “twerk” and “lol” and “tweet”. Language is inherently flexible and needs to evolve (that’s why we don’t all speak Proto-Indo-European), because maybe people are this way too (that’s why we don’t all crawl around on all fours or have pineapples on our mantlepieces). Something expensive isn’t necessarily better because it is so (except butter is always better than margarine and I will die on this hill so don’t fight me). So eat your German pastries because they taste better than the French ones despite not being as pretty, adopt your pavement special kitten because it needs a home and not because you can wank about it to your friends, and for god’s sake stop saying “it’s John and I” whenever you get the chance (you can scroll down for a preachy diatribe on this, if you’re interested).

For the recipe accompanying this rant (lol soz), I have chosen another stalwart of the food snobbery world, and requisite at any la-di-dah high tea: the scone. This is based on my great-grandmother Evelyn’s recipe for scones, which was rife with un-snobbish substitutes necessary for a working class lass in post-war England (like vegetable oil, instead of butter). I have overhauled the recipe into something decidedly snobbier than my great-gran’s ration-friendly version, but hope this is offset by my “whack it in a food processor and cut into squares” approach.

Alyssa’s re-snobbified version of Evelyn’s de-snobbified scones

4 cups flour

6 tsp baking powder (or use 4 cups of self-raising flour and omit the baking powder)

2 Tbsp castor sugar

Pinch of salt

110g unsalted butter (or salted, but omit the additional salt), cold and cubed 

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup of milk mixed with 1 Tbsp vinegar (or 1 cup buttermilk)

Put the flour, baking powder, sugar and butter into a food processor and whizz until crumbly. It should be mostly sand-like with the occasional little butter blob. Pour in the eggs and milk and pulse until a dough forms. Don’t be tempted to pulse any longer. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface, dust the top with more flour, pat into a rectangle, then roll out until 2,5-3cm thick. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 squares (3×4) – this prevents you from having to re-roll the dough, which can result in tough scones. Arrange the squares on a lined baking tray and bake at 200C for 10-13 minutes, until puffy and lightly golden. Serve warm with strawberry jam, lemon curd and whipped cream. They will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days, but leftovers are unlikely.

Lemon curd (adapted from Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe because she can do no wrong)

Lightly whisk 4 eggs in a pot, then add in 150g castor sugar, 100g cubed unsalted butter, a tiny pinch of salt, and the zest and juice of two lemons. Place on a medium-low heat and whisk continuously until everything melts and the mixture thickens. I like a very smooth curd so I strained it into a glass container before popping in the fridge.

A rant about “and I”, which is validated by the fact that I am a linguist and not just an angry anti-grammar-police-police

Thanks for reading this far! Here’s why you can definitely say “and me” whenever you damn well please:

In prescriptivist English (i.e. the English that people say you should speak), you use “I” when it is the subject and “me” when it is the object.

I am hungry.

*Me am hungry. (the asterisk means this construction is not used in the language, which is different from saying it shouldn’t be used in the language)

*He loves I.

He loves me.

And so:

John and I are hungry. (prescriptively correct)

John and me are hungry. (prescriptively incorrect, but used)

He is coming to meet John and I. (prescriptively incorrect, but used due to overcorrection)

He is coming to meet John and me. (prescriptively correct)

Following this rule, “John and me are hungry” and “He is coming to meet John and I” are ungrammatical. BUT people say them nonetheless. This is because the opposite of prescriptive language is descriptive language – in other words, if a speaker of a language uses that construction then it is an acceptable form in that language. Linguists seek to describe the language as it is spoken, regardless of what the prescriptive grammar books say. What this is indicative of is that we are currently in a weird transition period where we are moving towards “John and me” over “John and I” in a few constructions, and so there is usage overlap, especially due to the overwhelming overcorrection to use “John and I” in all contexts. This happened a few decades ago with “whom”, which was fading out in favour of “who”, despite fervent attempts (by die-hard fans of case markers?) to preserve its usage. “Whom” is almost entirely gone now. It’s sad that my grandchildren will never get to see a “whom” in the wild. Just as it’s sad that I’ve never seen a “forsooth” or “thou” in the wild. You can read more about language changes in the time of coronavirus here.

The Ubiquity of Oat Biscuits

It was recently Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, which was brought to my attention by a surge in the number of Instagram posts prominently featuring oat biscuits. Anzac biscuits are eggless oat biscuits that were historically made by the wives of Australian and New Zealander (what’s the adjective?) soldiers fighting in World War I. This little nugget of commonwealth history, naturally, got me to thinking about oats – a staple ingredient in porridge, biscuits, and even some beer – and just how multitudinous the variety of oat biscuits we humans have available to us is. Everyone from self-proclaimed (and who am I to argue) domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, to Ottolenghi and Mary Berry, from Milk Bar (a symbol of American decadence), to Martha Stewart has a recipe for some sort of oat biscuit. Queen Elizabeth II is also apparently partial to an oat biscuit for breakfast, and a version is also an ol’ faithful from my mom’s side of the family (more on that later). 

Oats have been cultivated all over Europe for thousands of years, but from the 17th century, they became a symbol of Scotland. Barley production in the country declined fairly rapidly to make way for the more versatile and longer-lasting oat – the derided staple grain of the barley-and-wheat-eating Englanders’ inferior neighbours. Samuel Johnson, in a disparaging entry in his 1755 dictionary, defined oats as ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ from which ‘tolerable good bread’ can be made.

The entry on oats in Samuel Johnson’s catchily-titled ‘A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers to which are prefixed, history of the language, and an English grammar: in two volumes.’

Scots must have taken their version of an oat biscuit (called an oatcake) with them to newly-expropriated North America. The first documented recipe for an oat biscuit in the USA (where oatmeal cookies are now the country’s fifth favourite cookie) appeared in 1896, in a voluminous recipe compendium compiled by the rather unfortunately named Fannie Farmer. The recipe appears on page 406 (!!) of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and does not contain raisins – a fact highlighted by a few American oatmeal cookie fanatics who despair at the unfair classification of this biscuit as a health food. Raisins were only introduced to oatmeal biscuit recipes almost a decade later on the packaging of Quaker Oats, a leading American brand of oat-y products. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe for oatmeal cookies.

As a child, one of the biscuits in my English gran’s biscuit repertoire most favoured by me and my cousins was what we called Quaker Oats Biscuits. I understood this to mean that these were oat biscuits originally made by Quakers. This made sense: my gran was from England, Quakers were from England (according to a novel I’d read), oat biscuits seemed decidedly English in their homely deliciousness, and I was only familiar with South African Jungle Oats (not American Quaker Oats). It took me 25 years to figure out my mistake. So here’s my gran’s recipe for Quaker Oats Biscuits, which involve neither Quakers nor Quaker Oats, but are nevertheless an important addition to the plethora of other oat biscuit recipes floating around the interwebs and elsewhere. The only amendments I’ve made to the original recipe is the use of butter over margarine, a slight reduction in the amount of sugar, and the addition of a bit of salt.

1 cup flour

1 cup oats (Jungle Oats, Quaker Oats, rolled oats, etc.)

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar (brown or white)

125g unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the flour, oats, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Once the butter has melted completely, pour it into the dry ingredients along with the bicarb and water mixture. Stir everything together until well-combined – there should be no visible flour, and all the oats should be slightly moistened. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes while you line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Scoop out about a heaped tablespoon of mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, then set it down on a baking tray and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Keep going with the rest of the mixture, until you have transformed it all into lovely little pats of buttery, oaty deliciousness. Make sure to leave a good few centimetres between each biscuit. Bake for 12-14 minutes until deep golden.

Note: the photographs in this post were taken by Kabir Dhupelia.