Monday, June 07, 2010

Food as Propaganda.

Unravelling urban myth from real history is a constant challenge, whatever the topic, isn’t it? The problem is, that if a sufficiently magical explanation is repeated often enough (an easy thing, nowadays, thanks to the Internet), it becomes indistinguishable from truth, doesn’t it? I make no claim to have unravelled the real story in today’s story – I haven’t spent nearly enough time on it, for starters – but I hope you find it interesting anyway.

The repeated factoid that intrigued me this week was the statement that ‘German Biscuits’ were renamed ‘Empire Biscuits’ in Britain as anti-German sentiment escalated in the prelude to World War II. This linguistic jingoism of this period has been a previous topic on this blog, when we considered the patriotic name-changes of sauerkraut to ‘liberty cabbage’, hamburgers to ‘liberty steak’, frankfurters to‘hot dogs’, and even ‘sauce allemande’ to ‘sauce blonde’. Then, in 2003, French fries and French toast briefly became ‘freedom fries’ and ‘freedom toast’ in the House of Representatives cafeteria, in response to French opposition to American invasion of Iraq. Other countries have done the same thing – just to name a couple: supposedly in Germany in WW II, ‘Norwegian sardines’ briefly became ‘Hindenburg Sardines’, and during the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2006, some groups in Iran wanted ‘Danish pastry to be renamed ‘Roses of the Prophet Muhammad.’

I had not previously heard the German biscuit name change theory, but it seems like a nice one to add to the list. I found many recipes for German biscuits, and a paltry few (much later) recipes for Empire biscuits, but I found no clear reference that commented on an intentional name change for patriotic reasons.

So - are German biscuits and Empire biscuits indeed the same thing? Recipes for German biscuits are common in cookbooks from the early nineteenth century, and they seem to fall into two broad groups. One is a spiced biscuit, reminiscent of one type of gingerbread. The other is a plain biscuit, with jam, or icing, or both. This latter sort is also called a ‘Linzer biscuit’ and it is clearly a bastard descendant of the Austrian (not German) ‘Linzertorte.’ The Linzertorte is a wonderful tart made from pastry which includes ground almonds or hazelnuts, with a jam filling, and a lattice top. It claims a heritage dating back to at least the seventeenth century in Austria. It seems that this last version is the one which became the Empire biscuit (or, alternatively, the ‘Belgian biscuit.’)

Mentions of the ‘Empire biscuit’ do seem to appear around about the time in question, but, rather oddly, are referred to as a specialty of Scotland. They consist of a couple of plain sweet biscuits sandwiched together with jam, and topped with white icing and a glace cherry.

That something as apparently innocuous as the name of a biscuit can inflame patriotic passions is demonstrated in the following article from the Washington Post in October 1933.

Paris, Oct. 7. Uproar ensued at the Valenciennes railway station today when a customer in the buffet asserted the biscuits he was eating were stamped “Hindenberg.”
The crowd pulled down the trays and trampled them on the ground until the police rushed in. The manager sued the customer for the lost case of biscuits.
In court, the judge reserved his finding after the manager produced samples of the biscuits. All were stamped “Made in Edinburgh.”

I give you a selection of German biscuits from which to take your pick:

German Biscuits.
Take cloves, cinnamon, corianders, nutmeg, of each a quarter of an ounce, and pound and sift them (or the essence of those spices will answer the same purpose); two ounces of preserved lemon peel, and one pound of sweet almonds cut into fine prawlings [as for pralines]; mix these ingredients with twenty four eggs, and five pounds of sugar, and as much flour as will make it of a malleable paste. Roll it out into squares, lozenges, ovals, or any other shape; when baked put on them an iceing of chocolate &c. to your taste.
The Italian Confectioner, William Alexis Jarrin, (London, England, 1829)

German Biscuits.
Rub in a quarter of a pound of butter amongst half a pound of flour, one quarter of a pound of sugar, a little carbonate of soda; moisten with one egg, and season with a few drops of essence of bitter almonds; put it in small bits on a buttered tin as rough as possible. Bake in a slow oven.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, I. Williamson, (Edinburgh, Scotland, 1862)

German Biscuits.
Whisk two eggs thoroughly, and stir into them half a pound of sifted loaf sugar. Beat them for twenty minutes, then add the peel of a small lemon, grated, two dessert-spoonfuls of cream, and, gradually, half a pound of fine flour. Mix all well together, roll the pastry out very thin, stamp it, with an ordinary pastry-cutter, into different shapes, and bake in buttered tins, in a quick oven, till light and coloured, which will be in about seven or eight minutes. Probable cost, 6d.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, (London, England, ca. 1870)

German Biscuits.
One cupful each of flour, ground rice, and sugar, 2 oz. butter, two eggs, half a packet mixed spice, one teaspoonful of soda, and two of cream of tartar. Roll out and cut into rounds, and when baked stick two together with jam. Put icing on top, made as below:- To the white of an egg beaten to a stiff froth add ¼ lb powdered sugar, spread on the biscuits, and place in a cool oven for a minute or two to dry.
The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), June 29, 1895

I finally found a recipe for Empire Biscuits – in an American newspaper, but apparently from an English contributor.

Empire Biscuits (Cookies)
You will need the following ingredients:
½ lb butter (or oleo)
¾ C sugar
2 eggs beaten slightly
3 C flour
1 t. soda
1 t. Cream of tartar
Cream shortening and sugar together, add eggs, then dry ingredients sifted together. Mix well.
Roll very thin, 1/8 to ¼ inch thick. Cut with cookie cutter.
Spread one-half of the cookies with raspberry jam or other tart jam. Place on second cookie sandwich fashion.
Bake10 minutes in slow oven 350 degrees.
Mrs Wharton warns that these cookies must be watched carefully so they don’t brown.
When cool, ice with confectioners sugar icing. Place a chip of cherry in the center of each cookie. Makes 60 double cookies.
Chronicle Telegram (Ohio) Dec 17, 1954

Quotation for the Day.

How can one make friends without exquisite dishes! It is mainly through the table that one governs!
Jean-Jacques Regis de Cambaceres.


Ferdzy said...

Interesting. I know empire biscuits as a local specialty (southern Ontario, Canada. Ohio is not too far away although I had no idea they had them too.) I also knew they were Scottish, which makes perfect sense: when southern Ontario cooking isn't Scottish in origin, it's German in origin. Or in this case both, I guess.

Foose said...

Perhaps the gentleman in the Paris Cafe story was dyslexic. "Edinburgh" contains most of the letters of "Hindenburg."

The Old Foodie said...

Interesting theory, Foose. I just assumed it was an example of paranoia mixed with panic.