If you’re an Australian, the title of this blog post likely felt kind of strange to you. Perhaps it just felt a bit wrong or maybe it made you feel a bit uncomfortable in the tummy. Maybe it even made you angry and you’ve already skipped reading this and jumped to the comments section to complain about ‘Americanization’.
For those not in the know, ANZAC biscuits are a traditional type of biscuit loosely associated with ANZAC Day (a day of remembrance for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). While most Australians would probably tell you they were shipped over to the soldiers at Gallipoli, the truth of this is debated. Either way, there is a strong association between the biscuit and the day, and even Australian nationalism more broadly.
This means that the combination of ANZAC and the American “cookie”, feels strange. This ANZAC Day just gone I decided to bake some (here’s an excellent, Country Women’s Association approved recipe, if you’re interested) and while rolling them out, I found myself contemplating why I was fine with ANZAC biscuit (or “bikkie”) but “ANZAC cookie” was definitely out.
This is certainly in part due to the Americanism of the word “cookie”. I gather I’m part of a generation for whom the word is more naturalised – I probably wouldn’t say “choc-chip cookie” (I’d probably go for “bikkie”), but it doesn’t sound too strange to my ear. “Biscuit dough” just sounds weird, though.
That food plays an important role in people’s identities, whether they be religious, national or ethnic, is nothing new. Preparing particular foods is often a way to reaffirm an identity. In fact, for many people around the world, it is often one of the only ways they can reaffirm an identity.
Anderson offers an example of his Teochiu friends in the largely Cantonese Hong Kong (long before recent protests broke out) – they largely eat Cantonese food when with Cantonese friends, but went specifically to Teochiu restaurants for special events, especially for family occasions.
Was I consciously trying to be an Aussie when I placed the trays in the oven? Absolutely not. But was it just a coincidence that I decided to bake them around ANZAC Day? Almost certainly not as well. I do also enjoy them at other times of the year (I just baked some last week for instance), but I think that’s to be expected of something so damn delicious.
This, however, treats ANZAC biscuits as just a concept. They’re representing Australia (and maybe war and sacrifice, if you want to go down that route), but they could be savoury, spicy, gooey, brittle or anything in between. It’s essentially taking the actual “food-y” bit out of the food.
As pointed out by Sutton, anthropologists struggled for a long time to describe food and the senses. They “did not have the language to address them either as topics of ethnographic analysis or of theoretical development.” And that is criminal, as the sensory experience of ANZAC biscuits is glorious, from the smell to the taste and (depending on your preference) the texture.
Again, for anyone reading this who’s not from Australia or had the pleasure of enjoying one, ANZAC biscuits are sweet, golden-brown, made with desiccated coconut, golden syrup, but no egg. Whether they should be slightly chewy or quite crunchy is definitely a bone of contention, however.
When is a biscuit not a biscuit?
This brings us to the question of what makes a biscuit a biscuit. A shortbread is definitely a biscuit as far as I’m concerned, as is a hobnob. I would also add chocolate ripple to that list. Choc-chip seems to be my liminal case, as I’d often call it a bikkie unless it came out of one of those pre-prepared logs, in which case it’s a cookie. If it contains M&Ms, it’s definitely a cookie.
Through an exhaustive search of incredibly reliable online resources, it seems I’m onto something—biscuits are generally considered to be harder, fluffier (which sounds contradictory to me, but I think I know what they mean), and without bits in. In comparison, cookies are more sugary, softer and often loaded with things (like choc-chips).
According to Mary Douglas, when analysing the sensory experiences of food, we should look at how foods can be reminiscent of each other—specifically how “the meaning of a meal is found in a system of repeated analogies”. Of course, an ANZAC biscuit is not a meal, but it can be located in the context in which biscuits are consumed – with tea.
This is now absolutely based on my own experience, but in Australia biscuits are heavily associated with the cuppa (which, while certainly short for “cup of tea”, can these days actually be a coffee as often as actual tea). This, by extension, invokes a particular national heritage – particularly on the British side. Whether or not we have any British in the family tree, the association between tea and bikkies is still strong.
The ANZAC, in its sensory experience, is reminiscent of other biscuits – often crunchy, lighter than a cookie and never any “bits”. Even if I don’t have one with a cuppa, there’s still an association with “biscuit” and, by extension, tea. To turn it around, I might have a biscuit on its own, but never for a meal or dessert (unless it’s an Italian espresso and biscuit long after the meal is finished).
The taste of heritage
The last leap of this post (and I admit it’s a big one) is that by being associated with various “biscuitty rituals” like a cuppa, ANZACs invoke a national heritage (real or imagined, doesn’t really matter), largely associated with the British past, not just conceptually in our senses. This then explains why, for many Australians, “ANZAC cookie” feels so deeply wrong. It’s not just two concepts that don’t belong together (like “light elephant” or “hot ice”); it’s a subversion of sensory experience that we instinctively feel is wrong. Eating an ANZAC cookie would be tasting a false heritage.
Or, you know, you just mightn’t like Americanisms.