Hunting down the history of the ANZAC Biscuit
This weekend many of us would have brought out the rolled oats and desiccated coconut for some traditional ANAZC Day Baking. While watching the two tablespoons of perennially difficult golden syrup suddenly become so much more manageable as they melt into the butter, you may have wondered if the legend that goes with the biscuits is just as changeable. ANZAC Biscuits – myth or fact? Did women at home almost one hundred years ago send these to the front from Australia? Anyone who has been lucky enough to pull the perfect batch from the oven will know the satisfaction of a teeth-shatteringly hard biscuit that gets chewier as the days go on. It certainly makes one believe the staple could have lasted months at sea and still been tasty once it reached the Dardanelles.
I set out on a hunt and pretty soon found that searching ‘ANZAC Biscuits’ in the Digitised Newspapers isn’t enough. It seems the monkier may have come later. In any case searching for the word ‘ANZAC’ in the decade 1910-1919 will give you 37,973 results so you need to narrow it down. What about searching for the recipe? Mine is
2 tablespoons golden syrup
125 grams margarine
1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
2 tablespoons of boiling water
1 cup caster sugar
1 cup plain flour
1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup desiccated coconut
The margarine is a concession to the original butter on behalf of arteries everywhere. It also makes them a little more chewy. A search for these ingredients brings up some interesting finds. Like this article for Rolled Oats Crunches. It’s from 1930 and it’s almost exactly my ANZAC Biscuit recipe
Another 1930 recipe simply refers to them as ANZACS, and this one from 1929.
Now for the most interesting thing – my search for the basic ingredients returns NO results in the decade 1910-1919. Shocking! I can ruminate on the possible reasons (OCR for that decade isn’t perfect and text correctors haven’t hit those articles yet, papers at the time didn’t carry this kind of recipe information, the papers we’ve digitised aren’t targeted at women who would be doing the baking…). The ingredients for ANZAC biscuits were very much agricultural staples at the time (oats, flour, sugar), meaning search results are clouded with trade prices per bushel and so on. However that gives us a clue as to why the biscuits have endured. The longer you search, the more it becomes obvious. They’re made from absolute basics. They would have been available during war rationing, and they’re still available now. Even if you're like me and substitute butter for margarine (better than this one which calls for lard).
Because they're made from staples, you see a a few variants popping up, for example Coconut Munches with a little more coconut, or Cereal Flake biscuits with an extra cup of cereal.
Something was going to the WW1 front though. In 1916 20,000 packages were shipped for Christmas from Perth, up from the previous year total of 3,600.
Additionally, Biscuits were clearly part of the war experience. Take a look at this poem The Slacker at Home which refers to ‘Bully and Biscuits’ as the foods at the front, or this lament in the 1930s for the ex-soldier,
and this request to the Comforts Fund for 100 tons of biscuits, or this YMCA appeal for money to continue funding 209,663 biscuits to the front.
The most likely possibility is that they were called something else at the time. There are copious mentions of ANZAC Wafers and they’re not flattering. If this is indeed the biscuit we eat today, then time and legend have recast the humble biscuit in a much more flattering light.
Not the accounts of the Gallipoli evacuation though. Have a read of C. E. W. Bean’s description of the Gallipoli Evacuation and imagine the home front hope you’d feel. Then get out your plain flour, caster sugar and wooden spoon and start mixing.
We can see here in the War Chest Cookery book from 1917 a recipe for Anzac Biscuits. A slightly different take - joined with jam and iced as well.