Cats enjoy birds, but they also like cream. It would be hard to test for a preference, one providing the challenge of the hunt and the other being a treat in a bowl within paw’s reach. But if I had to choose between the two as the most likely to figure, along with a cat, in an idiom about satisfaction, I’d choose the cream. In the United States, however, the expression for someone satisfied with his luck is the cat that killed the canary. In Britain, it’s the cat that got the cream.
This is the only time I side with the Brits. On other differences, I am decidedly American. I use a flashlight, not a torch, and for me it’s a truck, not a lorry, an elevator, instead of a lift. I need to know what the Brits say, though, because it’s their vocabulary in the English textbooks I use. So I’ve learned that chips are French fries, and that instead of saying chips and cookies, the Brits say crisps and biscuits. Colour not color. I’ve also learned that tea, rather than a drink, is the evening meal, and pudding is any dessert, not a particular kind, as it is for me, always soft and gushy, usually cream- or caramel-colored. A custard, in fact. In Spain, I have sampled four types: tocino de cielo, a delicacy originating in the Espíritu Santo convent in Jerez de la Frontera and concocted with only sugar, water, and the egg yolks given the nuns after the whites were used in wine making; flan, which is so standard a dessert that you find it in restaurants both modest and grand in every region; natillas, made with vanilla and cinnamon, and crema catalana, a delicious concoction that is not boiled like it’s French counterpart, crème brûlée, but thickened with cornstarch, meaning it is ever so much easier to make than the French dessert. My intention is to make all four Spanish sweets this summer in a test. I will have to plan, because once they are made, they will have to be eaten, and who will help me? One of the most popular classes among the extended learning classes in Gijón’s Universidad Popular, and surely in other places as well, is the cooking class. If I were enterprising, I would rent one of the many empty commercial spaces in my new town of La Pola de Siero, among them several defunct bars and restaurants, and open an English-language bookstore-school-and-café combo. Some easy chairs and some tables, some books to ponder, some deliciously involved explanations of expressions, and all accompanied by a cup of coffee or tea and a sweet, made by the patrons. A cat lounging in the window would be an inviting touch. A tidbit for the cat would be appropriate. Something really special, a real treat.
I have found just the thing, what the cats prefer to every other offering. I had sat down with a pot of a rather good commercial crema catalana, and all four of my cats perked up. They circled me, raised their paws, tried for a peek into the container of the creamy dessert. I think this brand is quite delicious. Would they? They obviously wanted to tell me. “Okay, but just a taste.” I figured the sugar wouldn’t appeal to them. I spooned a blob of the custard onto a plate. All crowded around. They lapped at it as best they could. It has the consistency of thick yogurt, and though I wasn’t sure if they were drinking or biting, they made short work of it. They looked up.
You’ve had enough, I told them.
They disagreed. They meowed plaintively. Yes, I know, I thought. Crema catalana, the best! No need to test all the Spanish puddings: I have my answer, and the idiom for it. The cat’s meow. What a fine expression! No question that it is American, having been coined by the cartoonist Tad Dorgan. To my mind though, more than British or American, the idiom is simply, charmingly antique. And so appropriate.
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