When I mention that I’ve been reading a history of biscuits, people’s usual response is confusion about why that would take a whole book or be particularly interesting. The answer is that Collingham discusses the social, economic and political circumstances surrounding the development of biscuits, and though the subtitle calls it a “British indulgence“, it discusses other countries too and the colonial uses of biscuits (yes, really — they were thought to be useful in ‘civilising’ places like India).
This was exactly what I was hoping for: a microhistory on a really narrow topic that used that topic to reflect on larger issues. You might not automatically think of looking at the Industrial Revolution through the role of biscuits, or realise the extent to which naval voyages of exploration relied on ship’s biscuit, or appreciate the fact that the original biscuits were twice-baked bread made a couple of times a year in communities that couldn’t afford to bake fresh bread every day… but all those different topics can open out when you start digging in.
You don’t just get to learn about when they started making Jammie Dodgers, or that the company was notoriously cheapskate and used plums for the “raspberry” jam in them because it was cheaper than raspberries… that’s certainly one of the things I learned, but I also learned that the custom of following savoury food with a sweet dessert has come down in a very long tradition from when the stomach was thought to putrefy food, and Arab ideas that sugar was ideal to help seal off the stomach from harmful vapours caused by that process.
In the end, it’s a history of biscuits and it comes back to that pretty swiftly when it strays away, but using the biscuit as a home base, it can tell you an awful lot.
In addition, it also contains some recipes between chapters, some of them traditional and others from modern sources. I haven’t tried any, since I’m not the baker of the family and I’m also very lazy, but it’s a nice touch and we’ll probably keep my copy in order to give them a try someday.