Strong Loyalties

Australia may seem like a relaxed country, but there is one thing every Australian takes seriously and has an opinion about: I refer, of course, to biscuits. Biscuits, or “bickies,” as they’re called, are a British inheritance, a teatime snack that’s never referred to as a “cookie,” though the two belong more or less to the same family of packaged foods. The fact that high tea is no longer widespread doesn’t stop the various biscuits from continuing to provoke strong loyalties.

Marketwise, it’s a pretty false competition since most of the main biscuits come from a single company. Arnott’s, now one of the largest food companies in Asia Pacific, began as a small shop in 1865; it was established by William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to the country, and situated in Newcastle, a coal and port town north of Sydney. Immortalized on the logo, until recently found on biscuit tins everywhere, is a colorful parrot—a ship captain’s gift from Mexico, as it happens, and not the native rosella it’s often taken for. Wheat sways in the background, and a golden cup, surely full of either bird seed or Earl Gray, is attached to the bird’s perch. Held in one claw and crumbling from the animal’s beak is a biscuit. A very plain-looking biscuit, it must be said, seemingly without any margarine—but more on such things to come.

The one Aussie biscuit recognized abroad is the Tim Tam. They’re easy to find these days in New York, the city I’ve lived in for almost a decade. You can get them at certain pie shops; along with their upmarket range of meat pies and sausage rolls, these places might stock beer, dry lamingtons and, if you're lucky, a Cherry Ripe. I prefer to patronize an Israeli deli in the East Village, though. At the Holy Land Market, you’re treated to something like the same postcolonial thrill as when you find biscuits wedged to the ceiling of a Pakistani taxi stand, spot Ovaltine behind the counter of a Trinidadian roti shop, or see Bangladeshi kids playing cricket on cement with a hard ball, parked cars be damned. Tim Tams are surrounded by confectionery with Hebrew names, without looking that out of place. It turns out they’re sold in Israel, too, so it’s possible that the delightful Magic-Markered sign on the wall—“We have Tim Tam!”—isn’t solely for the benefit of homesick Australians.

The classic Tim Tam is a milk chocolate biscuit with a layer of cream in the middle, likewise chocolate, and the whole lot is coated in, yes, chocolate. There are other variations, but even as tempting as they look, I’ve not yet tried Tim Tam White, Double Coat, Chewy Caramel, Classic Dark, Original Finger, Crush Honeycomb, Sweet Surrender Choc Hazelnut Flavored Mousse, Sweet Surrender Black Forest Delight or Sweet Surrender Crème Caramel. There’s a good chance I’ll never get around to them. For a child of the ’80s or before, the excess can be overwhelming, even indiscreet. Why not “glow in the dark” or “ribbed for her pleasure”?

The thing is, Tim Tams used to be a luxury, a treat that emerged only on miraculous occasions. (Fittingly, they’re named after a Kentucky Derby winner.) I remember them as rich and heavy, like little bars of chocolate gold. Today, they’re situated differently. They’re long established, and their progeny call to mind those stereotypes about immigrants’ kids—the new generation blasé about tradition, comfortable, as dissolute as the settlers. Or, perhaps they’re just cashed-up parvenus? In 2004, an alcohol-filled line was released, though it was predictably short-lived. Further symbolizing the new prosperity, Arnott’s has promoted something called the “Tim Tam Slam,” which challenges people to suck up coffee through a bitten-down biscuit-straw before it collapses into a soggy mess. Looking at videos of the “Slam” online, I wonder what the Tea Ladies would think. Up until a couple of decades ago, they used to daily wind their biscuit-laden afternoon tea carts through every government office in the capital.

Last year, I had the idea of throwing a small biscuit party in New York. A sort of experiment to test nostalgia’s wishful memory: in addition to me, three other expat Aussies would be present, as well as a few friends from elsewhere. After the obvious Tim Tams, it wasn’t easy deciding what to include. I say that sincerely, and not just as a ruse to forestall possible violence at my selection. Gaps were unavoidable: My parents’ offer to ship the biscuits across the planet could be taken only so far. The choosing process led to an early discovery: What a hell of a lot of biscuits there are! It took time, emails, conversations and much scouring of the Web to settle on just a few.

I decided to leave Anzacs off the list—a conspicuous omission. Made of rolled oats and golden syrup, this eggless biscuit may be the most significant of the lot. The name derives from the acronym for the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, which fought with great losses in World War I, a conflict whose significance to Australian values—some would argue mythology—is hard to underestimate. So, why did I exclude them? For one thing, because their historical story just places them in their own category. For another, there’s not a precise consensus on what an Anzac is. The biscuits sent to the soldiers (there were two kinds, wafer and tile) were meant as a long-life substitute for bread; often ground down to make porridge, they were, by all accounts, extremely hard—so hard that they could be written on and turned into postcards, or made to frame a picture. “Is it the delicious succulency of ground granite or the savory toothsomeness of powdered marble?” one connoisseur wondered from the front. “Do we perceive a delicate flavoring of ferroconcrete with just a dash of scraped iron railings?” It’s easy to believe that the stories about them being used for target practice aren’t all invention. Whatever the case, for such fare to be identified with their sweeter, far more edible cousins takes some imaginative generosity. And anyway, homemade Anzacs are the best.

The other omissions were easier. People told me Lemon Crisps are popular in rural areas, but I didn’t have a clear memory of them. (“Those aren’t secondary bickies!” a friend remonstrated.) The same went for Ginger Nuts, which, I hear, differ in recipe from region to region. Nor did I bother with Tiny Teddy biscuits. Though highly edible, the bears always seemed to me to be lesser Zoo Animals (R.I.P.). Finally, vacillation led to the exclusion of Adora Wafers—the one biscuit always in our pantry, usually with a red rubber band around them and going stale, when I was growing up—and the excellent teenage boy favorite, Chocolate Montes. Even casual regrets have their sting.

My final selection was small but fairly representative: Tim Tams, Mint Slices, Milk Arrowroots, Iced VoVos and then two of the hefty variety packs, Arnott’s Assorted and Arnott’s Assorted Creams.

It was clear I’d have to introduce the plain biscuits to my guests first. In the fridge, out of sight, would be the Tim Tams and their ilk. Given the choice of one of those, who’d opt for a humble old Scotch Finger? The Australians wouldn’t have acted any differently, the scoundrels.

My one rule was that everyone had to begin with a Milk Arrowroot. Arrowroots, which came out in 1882, were and are one of Arnott’s big hits. The floury oval biscuit inspired a cartoon character, Anthony Arrowroot, a sinister-looking, sort of 2-D Humpty-Dumpty figure, and, at a time of high infant mortality rates, was energetically marketed as baby food. (Hopeful mothers would send in photos of their biscuit-chubby infants to serve as advertising proof of Arnott’s role in “Healthy Living.”) I confess to remembering Arrowroots as flavorless, if benignly so. They were what you had when you’d run out of better biscuits, what teachers and other grown-ups offered because they didn’t want you to enjoy yourself too much.

At the party, I deliberately put out rather a lot and was gratified by the initial response. “It’s so dry, I can’t move my mouth,” my brother said effort-fully. The most positive reaction came from a German friend, who simply remembered something similar at home. But then, someone had the idea of adding butter: People began to take one after another, almost with pleasure. The old ad for SAO crackers was brought up, the one where a cloying little boy asks, “Can I’ve one with butter, Gran?” as was fairy bread and the margarine that made it slide down so well at birthday parties. Fairy bread! Hundreds and thousands! These are foods that deserve their own treatment. Let’s just say that, instead of a madeleine, they’re what an Australian Proust would deploy to light up his protagonist’s memory in later life.

Scotch Fingers, the next on the tasting menu, used to break so obligingly on television. That was part of the selling appeal of this shortbread: its ability to be split into two clean rectangles and shared. At the party, it wasn’t to be. I saw three couples try to break them, and each attempt resulted in pitiful disfigurement. Still, the biscuits proved the same great staple I recalled, and I kicked myself for not having requested a whole packet.

The other members of the “Assorted” clan, the Shortbread and Orange Creams and so on, had a way of blending into one another without stirring up too much comment. Fair enough. I wanted the Monte Carlos to be better, but, probably, I was just susceptible to the name, a dream of ultra-chic Europe as conjured from some antipodean scrub. (Incidentally, a few of Arnott’s discontinued biscuits have even better names—if only one could try a Mikado, an Empress or some Mixed Zu Zus!) Two creams did distinguish themselves slightly. One was the Kingston, a crumbly, diminutive biscuit with chocolate cream in the middle: It confirmed my suspicions of being divisive. “When it’s in your mouth, you have this feeling that it might be all biscuit,” someone volunteered skeptically, shocking words to any Kingston partisan. The other that drew notice, wholly of a negative kind, was the Delta Cream. Admittedly, this may have been my fault for saying a Delta Cream is like a disappointing Oreo, words that can’t have encouraged people to give it a proper go. Years later, it seems I’m still bitter for having been continually fooled by this “Assorted.” It was the only one to promise chocolate; yet it may as well have been made of carob.

I’ve often wondered what the reasons were—apart from the war-related ones, I mean—behind the long-lingering ubiquity of the plain biscuits. After all, even England’s unromantically named staple, the digestive, often has a chocolate-coated side. The layer is less than a millimeter, but the ingredient is there, and sometimes, amazingly, there’s even caramel inside. Why not in Australia?

When Arnott’s did eventually deviate from the plain mold, it wasn’t to replace it; rather, it was to add some special-occasion reinforcements, characters unhampered by too strict a sense of equality. This is what I had on the second plate, in the refrigerator: Tim Tams, Mint Slices—biscuits that parents attempt to hide from their offspring and which, that evening, were greeted with a solemn hush.

For many, the Mint Slice is the closest rival to the Tim Tam, if not the superior article. Its role as runner-up in any popularity stakes, though, is self-evident. A chocolate flavored piece of biscuit, layered in mint cream, covered in dark chocolate—it just doesn’t sound that unique. But champions of the Mint Slice (I am one) can console themselves by reflecting on the fact that their hero’s resemblance to other mint biscuits is only proof of a subtle and winning camouflage, for nothing else has quite the same taste. A friend once did well in describing it by talking of a “menthol burn.”

One last biscuit was featured on the second plate. With their plain roots and pink dress, coconut feathers and extravagant sash of strawberry jam, Iced VoVos constitute a third option between the more austere bickies and their polished chocolate betters. Always held dear, VoVos now seem to be more liked than ever. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd jokingly suggested his election be celebrated with VoVos and tea. The VoVo’s charm stems partly from the impression that it’s quintessentially Australian, a reflection of a specific people and land. More precisely, what it suggests is the galah, a silly pink and white cockatoo. It’s from this beloved bird that Australians take their vernacular use of “galah,” an intimate form of address for someone acting the clown.

The VoVos went down well at the party. In a sense, they were a good bridge between two very different plates. Unlike the richest chocolate biscuits, VoVos laugh at themselves and don’t call to be hoarded and savaged in isolation (or so I fancy). Come to think of it, this might explain why a true chocolate biscuit was never allowed onto all those platters. If one were, everyone would have to pretend they didn’t want it—the frown on naked individualism in Aussie society being what it is or was—and ruefully pick something else. As with so much else in the country, then, it’s a solution fused of pragmatism and manners.

Perhaps this practical aspect of biscuits shouldn’t be a surprise. Before being associated with tea and drawing rooms, biscuits were a food that sailors could take traveling. More than a detail in the Australian journey, by now they’re a prism, a weirdly revealing one, through which it can be viewed.