Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Who would have thought that this humble sweet biscuit would mean so much to so many. These words at the beginning of the preface were exactly what I thought when first reading this book.
Allison Reynolds, a culinary historian and gastronomer in residence in several South Australian establishments has provided the reader with knowledge she has gained from her considerable research of this small but iconic biscuit, as attested to by the twelve page bibliography included at the back of the book. As stated in the preface “the purpose of this book is to give an authoritative and reliable history of this iconic national food, not just for culinary history’s sake but for all generations to come” (X).
She has done this by creating eleven chapters. They include Across the Seas – The Anzac connection; The Anzac Biscuit – who do you think you are?; What’s in a Name?; Jaw Breakers – the Anzac Wafer or Tile? and Something from Home. There are chapters which discuss Who put the Coconut in Anzac Biscuits and Crispy verses chewy. Yet others address contents of parcels sent to the diggers in WW1, methods of cookery, related recipes and the family recipe book. The last two chapters focus on Keeping the Anzac Spirit Alive and Sutton Veny to South Australia. In the last chapter the author writes “I started this Anzac biscuit story with a Sutton Vent connection and now as I finish it, I return there with the discovery of these letters home” (124). She is referring to letters from Sutton Veny No. 2 Camp, included in a year 9 assignment. Even in 2018, a strong bond remains between students in Sutton Veny and Bridgewater Primary South Australia who often bake Anzac biscuits to send to England for ANZAC day.
There appears to be a very strong link with the term ‘Anzac’ not just for the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and other Australians and New Zealanders who celebrate the bravery of their soldiers during WW1. In Sutton Veny, Wiltshire, England, an Anzac cemetery housing 168 WW1 burials, lies adjacent to the school playground in the sacred grounds of the Church of St John the Evangelist. Children from the school used to pick flowers for the war graves. The wild flowers have now been replaced by flowers donated by the local florists and supermarkets.
The name Anzac biscuit appears to have come into use “not long after the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 when biscuit names and other foods …..were changed to include the word Anzac ……or….other patriotic names” (31). However there appears to be a link to the Anzac biscuit we know today, with gingerbreads from Scotland particularly. The author examines the ingredients included and the method of preparation when tracing the Anzac biscuits ‘culinary family tree’ (12).
In the chapter Jaw breakers comparison is made between the homemade, sweet biscuit made from rolled oats and golden syrup and the ‘army biscuit, a commercially produced hardtack biscuit integral to army ‘iron’ (emergency) rations’ (40), for which the soldiers found many interesting uses. Often “they wrote messages on them, painted pictures on them, and even used them as photo frames” (50). These army biscuits or ‘jaw breakers’ (53) were often sent to the troops and wharfies would scribble the acronym ANZAC across the outside to make sure they arrived at their correct destination and this is probably why they became known as ‘Anzac wafer or tile’(53). However, “these biscuits were anything but light and crispy…… (but) their oblong shape and weight may well have contributed to their title – Anzac tiles” (43).
Allison Reynolds has a close connection to Sutton Veny as she began school there and so was well aware of the Anzac cemetery. Many years later when she returned to this area she organised with the school to make Anzac biscuits with the children in their classrooms for Anzac Day.
From this book much is learned about the Anzac diggers and the conditions under which they survived during the war. These sections of the book include many excerpts from original letters and pictures of containers used to transport goods from Australia over to the troops as well as other visuals connected to this time.
In chapter 10, Allison Reynolds says that “the Anzac biscuit is used to convey acts of kindness and caring” (116) as they have been used in times of distress. During the 2011 floods in Brisbane Anzac biscuits helped feed SES workers and during the 2015 drought when 90% of Queensland was drought declared, “Homemade fruit cakes and Anzac biscuits were baked and wrapped, hand written notes were attached and these gifts of love were sent out west to Queensland farming families just in time for Anzac Day” (117). The author believes that “Anzac biscuits embody Australianness, conveying the ANZAC spirit of courage, endurance, survival and mateship and what’s more, they taste bloody good too” (117).
This was an interesting read. You will enjoy it as I did, I’m sure.
By Allison Reynolds