This summer, when migrant workers streamed out of India’s locked down cities, one of the recurrent images of their long walks to their home villages were the packets of biscuits that were, sometimes, all they had to eat, or that would be distributed by authorities and people from passing cars. In her latest book, The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence, historian Lizzie Collingham unwraps the complex history of this simple food item, both in terms of its role as basic sustenance, as in the workers’ marches; and the idea of a biscuit as a kind of civilisational nicety. The latter goes with the other image of biscuits in India: perennially perched on the chai saucer, a necessary accompaniment to the liquid life force that flows through government and other offices.
In her preface, Collingham notes that “no other nation buys and eats more biscuits” than Britain, an astonishing fact given the ubiquity of biscuits in India, which are, of course, as much a part of our colonial legacy as tea. Yet, despite the title’s focus on Britain, Collingham traces the history of the biscuit, or ‘twice-baked bread’, over a fairly wide swathe. Beginning in ancient times, with bread found in Pompeii, “nearly 2,000 years over-baked”, she brings together nuanced but not distractingly academic accounts of how sugar production, religion and geopolitics, trade, industrialisation and war came together to shape the modern biscuit.
Collingham uses colourful individual accounts to illuminate the historical shifts that gave rise to the familiar flat, hard bread. These include women and men working in various kinds of kitchens, sailors, soldiers and colonisers. Interspersed throughout the book are historical sketches about particular biscuit varieties, like gingerbread, wafers, funeral biscuits or Anzac biscuits. There are also recipes, both historic and contemporary, that are interesting reading for anyone interested in the evolution of methods of baking.
Collingham also uses biscuit-related archival sources to bolster non-biscuit-related historical theories. For example, while there are no official navigation records of Portuguese ships making exploratory journeys into the Atlantic before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Collingham suggests that this was the case because “the records of the Lisbon bakery show that it was producing far more biscuits than would have been needed for the voyages that are listed”.
Given that her previous books have been variously focused on Indian food, the British Empire and World War II, she naturally delves a bit further into imperial history (including references to biscuit hierarchies in India, and, of course, Parle-G). At times, Biscuit feels like a companion object-history to Collingham’s other books, which looked at food and history through relatively tighter frames of time or geography. This, along with her accessible writing style and uncluttered historical vision, makes Biscuit a book well-suited to dipping in and out of. Preferably along with a cup of tea, of course.