Literature can help us understand life and all that, but more important is what it can tell us about the biscuit. We start with Oscar Wilde, for he has much to say, and is the gateway to a wondrous world.
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
Without doubt, Mr Wilde was wiping his chops of the last crumbs of the last biscuit of the pack when he so quipped. Some might argue that there are other explanations. They would be wrong. While I (and I am rather afraid to say it here) sometimes forget a packet of opened biscuits until, weeks later, I chance upon their flaccid forms in the back of a cupboard, it is very clear to me that this is /not /normal or acceptable behaviour. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human beings abhor an opened, but unfinished, biscuit packet. Maybe it’s because biscuits are delicious: that’s when we eat a whole pack alone and don’t tell anyone else that they ever existed.
But biscuits are also comfort eating of the purest kind – not about greed – but about solace and a simple offering of friendship and care. I haven’t forgotten Oscar. He had a long-running association, of sorts, with biscuits through his friendship with the Palmer family, Reading’s great biscuit entrepreneurs. His name can be found in the factory’s guestbook from 1892. Three years later, Wilde was back in Reading: this time in the gaol. I don’t think the gaol was much fun, but we are told that he received some special treatment: when a friendly warder wanted to ease Wilde’s time he provided him with paper – for his writing – and Huntley & Palmers ginger biscuits – for his soul, I assume.
His time in the gaol inspired some of Wilde’s best work, including powerful writing on the brutal treatment of children in the prison system. He describes a small, uncomprehending boy in Reading: a boy with a face “like a white wedge of sheer terror….in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal”, shut in the dark and crying all day and half the night. Wilde thought the diet of bread and water was bad enough for a child, but what really stoked his ire was biscuits. A warder (the same who showed kindness to Wilde with the ginger biscuits)* saw the child “crying with hunger …and utterly unable to eat the bread and water served to it.” Thus, Wilde tells us, he “bought a few sweet biscuits for the child rather than see it starving. It was a beautiful action on his part”**
I didn’t really notice at the time, but I now realise that, as a child returning home from school, no homework or playing ever commenced until after my Mother’s ritual offering of the biscuit tin. And I find it hard to recollect a time when guests visited and the tin did not emerge: each biscuit saying “You are welcome. Be comfortable. Enjoy.”
I mentioned a wondrous journey. I’m a tease: that comes in the next post…
* Let him be named: kindly warder Thomas Martin.
** A beautiful action that saw him dismissed