More about snaisters and a wee diversion from didoes

On Saturday there, the word “snashters” featured in The Herald‘s “Scots word of the week”, compiled by Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Languages Dictionaries.  At first I thought: oh that’s a word I don’t know; however even before I’d read the first paragraph I realised: oh yes, I do.  It’s a variant of my father’s word – snaister (or snyster), about which I wrote in January 2018 in Return to Turadh.

I was so excited to make the connection between the two words.  Ms Speitel  tells us that in the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the given definition is: “a contemptuous name for sweets, cakes, pastries or other dainties, trashy food”.  The earliest written example found was in 1865, and she goes on to cite other uses from Argyle in 1932 and 1992, from Ayrshire in 2000 and in Edinburgh from 2004.

The Ayrshire example really struck a chord: “cups o tea an snashters at aw oors”  –  isn’t that what’s going on all over the country in our current lockdown?  The Edinburgh quote from 2004 in which a parent says to a child “stop eating snashters, or ye’ll no eat yer tea” recalled for me my father’s story of being told off as a child by an auntie with the words “too many snaisters, not enough kitchen!” – “kitchen” meaning in that context a proper wholesome meal.

In 2018, when I’d searched for snaister in my Concise Scots Dictionary, I failed to notice the entry for snashter though it was on the very same page, and nor did I think of trying the snyster spelling.  The word is a 19th century Scots one, now local to Perthshire and west central Scotland; it may have derived from Middle Low German’s snasherie meaning eating of dainties or from the Swedish word snask meaning sweets.

I took a picture of the SWOTW and sent it to My Favourite Niece as it was her refusal to countenance the existence of words such as snaister and didoes  –  another favourite word of her grandfather’s  –  that led us more than 10 years ago to carry out a short survey on Byres Road in Glasgow; it was grist for her mill that none of the folk we asked knew either of them; it has to be repeated though that our sample size was 5.  Now older and wiser, she messaged me back to say that she had enjoyed the article but still doubted that snashters would be known on Byres Road.

While having another shot in the dictionary at finding didoes, I spotted an entry for diet loaf – a late 18th / early 19th century kind of sponge cake.  Well, I thought, it’s maybe time for a reintroduction and I had great faith that I’d find the recipe in F Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen.  Sure enough there it was but the first instruction to “Take a pound of fine sugar sifted …” convinced me it was not a diet loaf in the modern sense so maybe the name just meant it was a plain loaf, not containing fruit or other fripperies.  I decided to halve the quantities and make a smaller version.  The sugar and eggs were to be beaten for 20 minutes and as I got out my electric whisk, I thought of the aching arms of all the poor skivvies who had had to do it by hand, maybe even originally with a bunch of twigs before the hand whisk was invented.

Within brackets, the recipe is attributed to Meg Dods and a footnote tells us of a mention in Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well.  This set me off on a couple of hours of fascinating internet research and the discovery of Christian Isobel Johnstone.  She was the author of The Cook and Housewife’s Manual which came to be known as Meg Dods’ Cookery; it was first published in 1826 and had at least 15 further editions.  Mrs Johnstone (she was married to an Edinburgh publisher) published it under the name of Mistress Margaret Dods, a fictional innkeeper in Scott’s novel of 1823.  Although it contained hundreds of recipes, she also included “domestic advice and household hints” and had a humorous introduction about the final meeting of the Cleikum Diners’ Club in which she mimicked Scott’s style.  In fact, she did this so successfully that some reviewers thought that Scott himself had either written it or had a hand in writing it.  (Wikipedia still states that Scott wrote it.)  Oh no, here we go, I thought and these doubts were confirmed the more I found out about the talents of the author herself.

She was born in 1781 and first married at the age of 16 to a printer called Thomas McCleish; they separated after 12 years and divorced 9 years later.  The following year she married John Johnstone and moved with him to Inverness where he bought the Inverness Courier and she wrote the first edition of her Manual.  She died in Edinburgh in 1857.

meg dods
Title page from the 11th edition in 1864

Over a career of 50 years, she wrote novels – Clan Albin was published in 1815 and Elizabeth de Bruce in 1827 – and children’s books and non-fiction; she wrote reviews and editorials; she edited and she wrote for The Edinburgh Tales; she edited the Inverness Courier with her husband and in 1834 became editor of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine – the first woman to have a paid job as the editor of a periodical.  So why could she not have written the introduction to her own book?

Talia Ora Cohen of Middletown Connecticut, in her fabulously-titled thesis Exploring Meal Chauvinism submitted to the Wesleyan University in April 2019, tells us that Mrs Johnstone argued for “the abolition of slavery, the repeal of the Corn Laws, an end to the oppression of Irish peasants and for the radical expansion of women’s rights.”  St Ronan’s Well is one of the texts Ms Cohen studied, along with The Cook and Housewife’s Manual and Measure for Measure.

She praises the character of Meg Dods as “her domestic talents do not serve to please a husband or to nurture a morally upright family.  Instead, they allow her renown and financial independence.  Meg finds no issue in boasting of her abilities and carving out a public reputation for herself, and she lives unapologetically for her own sake.”  It’s maybe no surprise then that Christian Isobel Johnstone decided to adopt the character for the author of her cookery book.

I felt honoured to be making the diet loaf and as a tribute to My Favourite Niece, another feisty female and fierce critic of my hoarding tendencies, I threw out the last of my old bag of flour which was only two years out of date and opened up a new one.  The eggs were to be weighed to match the weight of the sugar so I had 4 eggs and half a pound of sugar to beat together; having a mod con, I thought I could maybe also halve the 20-minute whisking time.  “Season with lemon grate” it said so I added the grated rind of one lemon, and then carefully folded in 6 oz of self raising flour, half of the specified “three quarters of a pound”.  (I’d to double check my fraction work the previous day with The Loon and was relieved that I’d got it right.)

The diet loaf just out of the oven

No timing was given but we’re told it would “bake quickly”.  I’d prepared two different tins: a 2lb loaf tin and a round tin; by prepared, I mean I put in a Lakeland paper liner.  As I feared potential overflow, I used the round tin and then sat worrying, Bake-Off style, as I watched it rise to the top.  It stayed quite pale and I was feart to take it out too soon but after about 30 minutes, it felt firm – maybe too firm – to the touch so I took it out.  Big mistake: as it cooled, it started sinking and on investigation it was only the top layer that was cooked and the rest was near raw so it went back into a reheated oven.  F Marian McNeill had specified 400 degrees fahrenheit but I’d thought that a bit fierce and put it in at 170 celcius in my fan oven. Next time, I’ll do what I’m tellt.

The last ironic words must go to Christian Isobel Johnstone.  In the famous introduction, after Meg Dods had prepared their dinner of hare soup, stewed red trout, chicken served with rice and mushroom sauce, venison collops, pork, and a cranberry tart with rich plain cream, she is listening as the male members of the Cleikum Club pontificate on Man as a Cooking Animal:

“What a style o language!” whispered Mistress Dods. “But I maun look after the scouring o the kettles.”


One thought on “More about snaisters and a wee diversion from didoes

  1. Pingback: Buntata – Splendid, Bella!

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