BY CELIA PURDY (in conjunction with Allison Reynolds)
The humble Anzac biscuit is a national icon, here and in New Zealand. This simple baked treat has a long history, which has been lovingly traced by culinary historian Allison Reynolds in her new book Anzac Biscuits: The power and the spirit of an everyday national icon
One of the things that stood out in Allison’s research was the use of the biscuit in comfort packs sent to the men at war. The Australian Comfort Fund (ACF), formed in 1916, was established to coordinate the state-based patriotic funds, like the one that the VRC so generously donated to during both WWI and WWII. The different divisions were all then brought together by the ACF to coordinate the sending of homemade goods and other comforts to the troops.
The biscuit, not unlike the running of the Melbourne Cup, offered much pleasure to the men on the frontline in the times of war. “Sending something like home-made biscuits gave the soldiers a real connection to home,” says Allison.
A diversion from the horrors of war, comfort packs sent from home usually included bars of soap, cigarettes and tobacco, reading matter and clothing such as hand-knitted hats, scarves, gloves and socks - all very welcome for the cold, damp nights. Half the packs also contained food. While items such as sweets and sardines were definitely appreciated, soldiers seemed to particularly enjoy receiving homemade food.
“If you received a fruit cake you were popular,” said Allison. “As the soldiers liked to share their food among their friends.” While fruit cakes were welcome and kept well (especially important due to the lengthy time it might take to get its destination), they did prove a little impractical to send to the frontlines. “A fruit cake cost a lot to make and not everyone had the access to funds to buy the ingredients,” said Allison. “They were also heavy so costly to post and could sometimes arrive broken.” Biscuits, however, were the perfect solution.
Made from ingredients that most women already had in their store cupboards - oats, golden syrup (in lieu of eggs which were in short supply), flour - the biscuit that would come to be known as the Anzac biscuit, was a winner.
Not only delicious, travelled well in air-tight tins and were easy to share amongst friends, the biscuits also embodied family and warmth. “The soldiers would have known that the love from home would have gone into making those biscuits,” said Allison. “And it was also a way for families to come together back home. They could bake together in the family kitchen, maybe using a recipe passed down generations in a family recipe book.”
The biscuits were also an excellent fundraiser for the war efforts, as women who were always looking to do their bit to raise money were able to make batches to sell.
This simple biscuit held such a power and still does to this day, as eating one reminds us of its connection to our national identity and the selfless acts of our troops.
Anzac Biscuits: The power and the spirit of an everyday national icon by Allison Reynolds is available to be purchased through Wakefield Press.
Allison Reynolds, MA (Gastronomy), is a culinary historian and a regular commentator on many aspects of food history. As gastronomer in residence at several South Australian establishments she researched the social and food history of early Adelaide. Allison's passion for tea, marmalade, food history and old cookery books continues unabated.
A note from the author: All royalties from the book will be donated to the War Widows’ Guild of Australia, a not-for-profit organisation. I was inspired by a story I read in the April issue of the Australian Women's Weekly. This organisation connects and supports families all around Australia today, just like the baking of biscuits by families in the First World War connected families with their loved ones overseas.