The Anzac Biscuit Myth

It’s hard to shatter people’s myths…but I’m going to do so. I bet you think that Anzac Biscuits were based on Scottish oatcakes...

The Anzac Biscuit Myth

It’s hard to shatter people’s myths…but I’m going to do so. I bet you think that Anzac Biscuits were based on Scottish oatcakes, called “Soldiers’ Biscuits” pre-1915 and the Gallipolli Campaign, and renamed when the ANZAC acronym was coined; that they were sent to soldiers at the front and baked by hundreds of thousands at home during the First World War to raise funds for the war effort.

It does make a lovely story and create a wonderful mental picture of the girls and women left at home, doing their part by slaving over a baking board and hot oven, wielding their rolling pins as weapons against the enemy, as they mass produced biscuits to send to soldiers and sell for fund-raising.

Sorry to burst the bubble of your illusions, but that’s not quite the case. I’d always thought that was the true story – and most people in Australia and New Zealand who have given the matter thought accept it as such.

Most certainly, biscuits were sent to troops, and they had to be non-perishable as they travelled by sea with no refrigeration. They were made from rolled oats, sugar, plain flour, butter, golden syrup, baking soda and boiling water. No eggs were used – firstly they were scarce, secondly they reduced the keeping properties of the biscuits, so the syrup was the binding agent. The biscuits were packed in used tins which were sealed to be airtight.

What set me on the track of the real origin of the Anzac biscuit, was veteran food editor, Tui Flower, who said “No” when I quoted the popular version of the story. She maintains that the name didn’t come until some time later, and sent me off to talk to Helen Leach, Professor of Anthropology at Otago University. Professor Leach is internationally recognised for her research into the origin of food…names, recipes and the like…and is the person who put the Australians’ noses of out joint, by proving that the first Pavlova recipe was made in New Zealand.

So, to Professor Leach my thanks for setting the record straight. To date she believes that the first time the right name and the right recipe came together was as Anzac Crispies in 1921, in New Zealand, in the St Andrews Cookery Book in Dunedin. Australia didn’t catch up until 1923. However, as Professor Leach points out, as older recipe books are discovered and studied, there may be earlier examples of the right name and concept in both countries.

Serendipitously, just the week before eCook spoke with her, Professor Leach spoke, among other things, about the Anzac Biscuit to the East Otago Federation of Women’s Institutes. Here is what she had to say:

“…The first use of the name Anzac in a recipe was in an advertisement for Anzac Cakes in the 7th edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book, published in Dunedinin 1915, the year of the landing at Gallipoli. These cakes may have been like rock cakes; however the recipe left out the mixing instructions. They were not a form of Anzac Biscuit.

"In 1917, The War Chest Cookery Book published in Sydneyincluded a recipe for Anzac Biscuits. However the recipe was for another type of biscuit altogether (using eggs, cinnamon and mixed spice, and rice flour). The prototype of today's Anzac Biscuit appears in The War Chest Cookery Book under the name Rolled Oats Biscuits.

"In 1917 or 1918, exactly the same situation can be found in the Southland Red Cross Cookery Book. It contained a recipe for Anzac Pudding, while what we know as Anzac biscuits appeared under the name Rolled Oat Biscuits.
Then in the 9th edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book, published in Dunedinin 1921, we find Anzac Crispies with the ingredients and method that we recognize in modern Anzac biscuits.

"From The Australian National Dictionary we learn that the first correct recipe for biscuits called 'Anzacs' appeared in 1923 in Mrs H. W. Shaw's Six Hundred Tested Recipes, 9th ed. This 1923 recipe is very similar to our 1921 Anzac Crispies.
On present evidence New Zealandhas the authentic recipe two years ahead of the Australians, but in view of the many different items renamed to commemorate the Anzac forces, it is obvious that people on both sides of the Tasman were following parallel paths.

"Subsequently, coconut was introduced as an ingredient by 1927, and there was a wheatmeal variant (replacing the rolled or flaked oats) by 1929. This variant was rare after 1950 – it almost always included chopped walnuts.

"From the 1960s there was a steady decline in the number of recipes for Anzac Biscuits/Crispies appearing in compiled recipe books, as well as a tendency to revert to names like Rolled Oat Biscuits. By 1980, the recipe had virtually disappeared from these books. It was revived in the 1980s-1990s by several foodwriters, who began to promote new variants including peanuts, sultanas, sesame seeds and chocolate chips. Its chocolate-coated form received major promotion by Griffins as its 'millennium' biscuit.”

There are, as you’ll realise, numerous versions of the Anzac Biscuit. Check my recipe out at Anzac Biscuits or you could make a dessert with a difference, using the same ingredients, Anzac Crumble.

Why not share your favourite Anzac Biscuit recipe – send it in to our Chat Room and share it with other eCook members. As Professor Leach commented, people are always reluctant to abandon their favourite myths…and if you want to hold on to your version of the Anzac Biscuit story, that’s fine. Just keep making them!

 

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