The following story was originally published in Going Down Swinging #37. Grab a copy here.
“The opposite of a hole is a biscuit.” — Tim McCool
My mother didn’t like biscuits. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the taste of biscuits, she just didn’t want us to eat them. “Like poison for your teeth,” she would say. “That’s what Graham [the dentist] told me.”
When I was a child and my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I would often ask for a family-sized pack of Arnott’s Assorted Creams. I never got them. I wasn’t deprived. My parents bought me beautiful things, lots of things, for my birthday, at Christmas, and sometimes for no reason at all. We just didn’t get biscuits.
It could be that this deeply traumatic experience led me, as an adult, to love – no, to worship – biscuits. Or it could be that I am naturally drawn to them. Nature or nurture? It’s difficult to tell.
When I travel overseas, one of my first ports of call is a supermarket, specifically the biscuit aisle. The Netherlands was disappointing. The United States blew my mind. The biscuits of Great Britain lit up a small, lonely place in my soul.
My mother had a friend called Connie. Connie was tall, with a hairstyle reminiscent of a giant grey cloud. She wore plasticframed glasses, and woollen skirts.
When we went to visit, Connie would feed my brother, my sister and me lamingtons and cakes flavoured with ginger. And biscuits. Lots of biscuits. Most notably: Iced Vo Vos and Spicy Fruit Rolls.
“You three are going to explode!” Connie would say, passing us another plate. For some reason, the rule about biscuits didn’t apply in Connie’s house. Perhaps my mother liked to see Connie indulging us. Or perhaps she wanted to come across in a particular way, which was at odds with her biscuit embargo.
When my sister moved to Dubai she got pregnancy cravings. I sent her a box of Iced Vo Vos. But I couldn’t find Spicy Fruit Rolls in Melbourne. So I had to settle for an inferior version, with a rich, raisin filling encased in flat (as opposed to pillowy) biscuit.
I packed and repacked the biscuits. I told myself it was because I didn’t want them to break, but it may have been because I found it hard to let them go.
Christine Doig went to my primary school. She had long, dark-brown hair, and when she felt shy she would hunch over and push her shoulder up to meet her ear, as if she was trying to curl back into herself like a snake.
Christine Doig got the same biscuits every day for playlunch. Two of them. The biscuit featured a shortbread base, one half covered in chocolate, the other in a layer of red jam. On top of the red jam layer was a mound of marshmallow and the marshmallow was covered in hundreds and thousands.
My playlunch consisted of items such as: box of sultanas; Vita-Weats; cheese sticks. But never carrot sticks. Because my mother knew a doctor who knew a kid who’d choked on a carrot stick as he was running around the playground. And none of the items in my playlunch were wrapped in plastic. Because kids used the plastic to blow bubbles and if you breathed in while you were blowing a plastic bubble you might choke. Choking was a real and present threat.
My mother had another friend who never served biscuits. Instead, she served a shop-bought cake that was covered in a thin layer of dark chocolate. Although the cake was good, this friend of my mother’s had an underlying preference for boys. Girls, for her, were the least interesting of children. Or perhaps the least important. Which was fine for her children, because both of them were boys. But not much fun for my sister and I, because we were not.
There’s a photograph of my family and hers at the zoo. My sister is wearing a polo neck top. Her hair is in pigtails and she’s wiping her eyes and crying. My mother’s friend is holding my sister, but she doesn’t want to be held. She’s trying to wriggle free.
Every time I see this photo it makes me sad. It reminds me of being at this woman’s house. It smelt like melting tar. There was a trampoline in the backyard. Nothing terrible happened at the house. Nothing terrible happened at the zoo. But the photograph still makes me sad.
Nevertheless. That cake was very, very good.
Vanessa Matthews had a bunch of brothers and sisters who were much older than her. She behaved like an afterthought. Quiet. Compliant. Blending effortlessly into the background.
Vanessa liked Shortbread Creams; the biscuit for straightforward, no-nonsense folk. As the name suggests, the primary feature is shortbread. Between two pieces of shortbread hides a layer of cream icing.
I stayed overnight at Vanessa’s house once. We played footy in the backyard. Her brother, whose name was Matthew, told me I was good at tackling. Her mother called us in for morning tea: Shortbread Creams.
Vanessa went to my high school. At some stage we stopped being friends. A group of us were in the art room once. Someone was telling a story about a guy who had ‘W’ tattooed on both of his bum cheeks, so that when he bent over it (supposedly) read: ‘WoW’.
“Like…. Wowwww,” Vanessa Matthews said in an American accent. Nobody laughed (including me).
My mother bought groceries at a shopping centre called The Totem. At the entrance stood a totem pole. At the top of the pole was a bird with an imposing black beak and oval-shaped white eyes.
There was a delicatessen at The Totem. It smelt like mixed spice, salami and coffee beans. It was owned by a slightly overweight, middle-aged foreign couple. Their doughy white Eastern European complexion glowed in their perpetually dark store. On the rare occasions my mother bought biscuits, she would buy German biscuits from the delicatessen. They were mound shaped and covered in a thin layer of crisp white icing. The biscuit was a chewy ginger dough, but like cocaine cut with washing powder, these biscuits weren’t sweet enough to satisfy my rampant sugar cravings. I ate them in the absence of any alternatives.
The shopping centre is gone now, as is the totem pole.
They had a thing about cheesecakes, these two girls. They had cheesecake eating competitions: who could eat the most in one sitting.
They were a bit older than us, and had experiences we were longing for, such as getting stuck at Wynyard late at night because they’d been out drinking and met some guy who’d coaxed them back to his hotel room with an offer of drugs.
I had a crush on both of them. One was a sweet crush encouraging fantasies about beach romps. The other was an epic saga that had me tying myself in tight, complex knots I did not know how to release myself from.
She lived up the street. I had seen her bedroom. I would lie in bed and try to work out what direction her body might be lying in, then try to match that position to my own. In this way, I felt, I was kind of lying next to her.
In my early twenties, I lived with a woman in a house in Ultimo. The house was falling down, but the rent was cheap.
The woman’s family came to visit. There was a plastic dinosaur on top of the TV. There was a Barbie doll on top of the TV. The dinosaur was doing Barbie, doggy style. The woman’s father laughed at the dinosaur and Barbie.
The woman’s family left cream biscuits. Three packets. Her younger brother cried. He wanted the biscuits. He did not want us to have the biscuits. So he cried.
I got a job. I had no money to buy lunch. I was poor. The woman was poor. (We were contemplating hocking my cassette recorder at a pawn shop in Newtown). I took those biscuits for lunch every day. The biscuit dough was gluggy. It stuck to the roof of my mouth. The cream was flavoured either orange or lemon. The biscuits made me feel sick. They sat in my stomach like a clump of foam in a cheap pillow.
The woman and I broke up some time after. I don’t think she was ever in love with me. Nor I with her.
The Pubic Hair
My thesis supervisor liked the biscuits I made her for Christmas. They were vanilla shortbread in the shape of small pears, dusted with icing sugar.
She took the biscuits on holiday. She said everyone in her family kept asking, “Where are those pear-shaped biscuits?”
My supervisor was head of the Women’s Studies department. It felt a little incongruous, being a woman and baking for a specialist in Women’s Studies. I wondered whether, instead of baking, I should have been playing drums in a radical feminist heavy metal band, or writing an article about the relationship between heteronormativity and capitalism. But I still wouldn’t have known what to give her for Christmas.
My thesis supervisor was paranoid about germs. She didn’t like to touch food that other people may have touched. I didn’t learn that until after I gave her the pear-shaped biscuits.
I have an image sometimes of a woman biting into a pear-shaped biscuit and finding inside – to her horror – a single black pubic hair.
People with Bulimia often binge on biscuits. It must be the hardcore injection of sugar and fat. I don’t have Bulimia, but I have been known to binge on biscuits. I just don’t vomit them up again. Which may be why my Body Mass Index is, supposedly, a cause for concern. I’m meant to have a waist of 90cm or less. At the moment it’s 98cm. I don’t really worry about it. When I step into the bath and pass by the mirror, I just look somewhere else. Then I can pretend I have the body I had when I was twenty-one-years old. And desperately, desperately unhappy.
I fell for chocolate chip biscuits a few months back. I especially liked the packaging – giant paper packets or cardboard boxes. But I didn’t like the fact that the biscuits were in trays. I wanted them to sit loosely in the bag. That way you would get more. And they never looked as big in the packet as they did in the picture on the packet. And I got a little tired of the inconsistency to be honest. Sometimes way too many chips, all in a blob. If I wanted to eat chocolate, I would buy chocolate wouldn’t I? And others hardly had any chips at all. It’s like a whale watching tour where you don’t see any whales. It’s just like that. Exactly like that. Isn’t it?
My partner and I have very different taste in men. She likes brooding, obscure actors like Tom Hardy. I also like actors from the British Isles, but I tend towards those with more prominent noses.
When I take time out to watch the DVD of Silk (an English courtroom drama) I tell her I’m “taking a bite from the Rupert biscuit”.
Rupert Penry-Jones is a blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked English actor with a substantial but nicely-proportioned English nose. In Silk he plays a playboy barrister who is kind-of-envious-kind-of-in-love with the main character, Martha, who got Silk (i.e. Queen’s Counsel) before he did.
I also like Martha (Maxine Peake) and for a while was convinced she was gay. But when I Googled: ‘Maxine Peake gay’; and ‘Maxine Peake lesbian’, I found no evidence to indicate as such, so it’s probably not true.
I also like Billy Lamb (played by Neil Stuke), the senior clerk. He is rougher than Rupert. You may think I want to have an orgy with the cast of Silk, but I don’t. I just want one of them to fall in love with me.
Hobnobs are the butterfly of my soul. I will happily eat them any night of the week, but I especially like to eat them on Saturday night. I like to have a new packet on Saturday night, not the remainder of an already-opened packet. If my partner eats too many, I start to feel edgy. But I don’t tell her that. It’s not that I want all the Hobnobs to myself. Or maybe I do. No. I think it’s more that I like the idea of having a lot of Hobnobs left. Although even better than that is an unopened pack of Hobnobs. Sometimes I buy a packet of Hobnobs even when I don’t really feel like eating them.
Hobnobs are made with oats. And a lot of sugar. And butter. Or maybe palm oil, or some other environmentally destructive ingredient. They are crunchy and bitty, like toasted muesli. One side is covered in chocolate. Hobnobs come in two flavours: milk chocolate and dark chocolate. My partner does not like dark chocolate. I usually buy milk chocolate. Sometimes I buy dark chocolate.
I have this thing where if I have a fabulous time with someone, I fear this will be the last time I ever have a fabulous time with that person, or the last time I will ever have a fabulous time. Period.
This negates the positive feelings associated with those fabulous time. I can’t just have a fabulous time, I have to worry about how long it is going to last, and whether it will ever come again.
Biscuits are comforting in this sense. When the packet is empty, you can always buy another. There’s no such certainty with fabulous times. You might expect that a time will be fabulous, but there’s no guarantee. Fabulous times can be had without biscuits. But I don’t think biscuits could ever destroy the potential for a fabulous time. Unless the biscuits were poisoned. In which case, the time would probably not be so fabulous.
 Cheesecakes are not biscuits, however the base is typically made of biscuits therefore this story meets the inclusion criteria for this memoir.
 This is a direct quote from a Pablo Neruda poem. This poem is not about biscuits.
The following study notes are designed to generate discussion of the work and the multiple complex themes it touches upon. They are intended for group discussion, but can also be used by solitary readers who wish to engage more deeply in the issues raised within the work.
- In the piece entitled ‘Poison’ the author makes a playful attempt to justify her lifelong love of biscuits when she refers to the idea that our preferences are driven either by our biology or our upbringing. Discuss the idea of ‘nature and nurture’ in light of your own experiences with biscuits.
- Many of the pieces in the memoir, including ‘Cake’ and ‘Wow’, make reference to issues pertaining to gender norms, stereotypes and restrictions. Does the author succeed in highlighting the complex issues surrounding gender in contemporary society through her unique ‘biscuit’ lens? What other ways does biscuit culture in the developed world (e.g. production, packaging) challenge or reinforce gender norms and stereotypes?
- What is the difference between a “sweet crush” and a crush that has you “tying yourself in knots”? And what are the cultural factors that drive the ubiquitous nature of the Tim Tam in Australian biscuit culture?
- Why might someone be in a relationship with someone who they are not in love with, and who is not in love with them? (See ‘Love’). What is your favourite biscuit, and why?
- What does the pubic hair in the piece ‘Pubic Hair’ represent? Have you ever found a pubic hair in your food? What specific steps did you take to rectify the situation?
- ‘Whales’ is the only piece in which the author makes a reference to the health implications of eating too many biscuits (“my Body Mass Index is, supposedly, a cause for concern”). Does this memoir deliberately avoid the negative implications of biscuit culture?
- The author suggests that if a piece of information cannot be verified via Google, it is “probably not true” (see ‘Nose’). When was the last time you ate a biscuit that reminded you of a famous gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer or questioning person?
- The author states that she “usually” buys milk chocolate Hobnobs and “sometimes” buys dark chocolate Hobnobs. How do your biscuit preferences impact upon your intimate relationships?
Photo by Kevin Doncaster on flickr.