Notes on a Biscuit Puzzle

Long-dead cookies don’t become ghosts; they become petrified crumbs. Abandoned biscuits do not decompose, ever

biscuits and one chocolate chip cookie
The Walrus / iStock

The picture for a jigsaw puzzle I have been meaning to work on is of a stomach full of biscuits.

A biscuit is often a thin, flat, edible disk typically associated with the British. It’s as stiff as an upper lip. You have to suck on it to extract any flavour.

A cookie, on the other hand, is a biscuit that’s become bloated, soft, and sometimes crunchy, as if it has lost control of its biscuit self and is now an embarrassment to others.

Mostly, what we eat in Canada are cookies. Because of this, we are frequently seen as a somewhat spineless, though harmless, people.

A biscuit, often described as beige, round, or square, is first baked and then left to dry out and harden.

“Biscuit” is also the name of a flat piece of wood used to join two planks together. This description sounds like the biscuit I remember being given as a child at my friend’s house. As a further treat, her mother served us milk that she’d dyed blue using food colouring.

Early on, you learn disturbing things about people.

“The crux of the biscuit,” said Frank Zappa, “is if it entertains you, fine. Enjoy it. If it doesn’t, then blow it out your ass.”

Even a seven-year-old can understand this sentiment.

While there are hundreds of different kinds of cookies—a date square is a square bar cookie—there are few versions of the standard British biscuit. A shortbread; perhaps a hobnob. Both, in my experience, retain the signature quality of having to suck on them to retrieve flavour, and usually there is none. Teething biscuits offered to babies may count as a variation on the standard biscuit, but their value is more for placating tears than for pleasure.

“Biscuit” was the nom de plume of the no-fun teenage counsellor at a United Church girl’s camp I attended for a week in early summer when I was ten years old. I remember it rained every day.

Biscuit’s rival was the lively “Cookie” in the hut next to ours. We could hear her and her charges laughing like crazy after lights out, playing games, singing camp songs, while Biscuit lay on her cot reading romance novels by flashlight and telling us, “Just go to sleep, for Chrissake!”

The girls in our hut became lesser beings because of Biscuit.

There’s a paint colour called “Biscuit” that you can choose for your living room walls. The shade can range from light beige to brown. According to the furnishing-tip website CasaOmnia, “Biscuit color is a very in vogue color lately; not only in terms of furniture but also in clothing and artistic trends in general.”

“Artistic trends in general.” What does that even mean?

Is there an “in vogue” trend in biscuits? Yes!

In the UK, a popular biscuit, according to Joe, a British news-and-entertainment site, is the Lotus Biscoff, a name that sounds like it’s been derived from the food designer’s yoga practice.

The worst British biscuit is the Garibaldi, according to Joe, a biscuit that contains currants. Joe’s assessment is one I wholeheartedly agree with. “Currants have no place in society, let alone in our biscuits.”

And Joe’s very best biscuit? Fox’s Chocolatey. Its high ranking comes with a rapturous comment: “Oh absolutely Jesus suffering Christ yes.”

“Cookie” was a favoured name for cats and dogs when I was a growing up. Now everyone is calling their dogs “Coco.”

Which is something you can dunk a biscuit into, but never a cookie because a cookie, true to form, will fall apart.

There are not a lot of biscuit crumbs left in a tin when it’s emptied, unlike with cookies, which turn into crumbs at a shocking rate. This is the only good thing that can be said about biscuits: they don’t shed.

“It’s a stark thought,” said British writer Steven Hall, “that when we die most of us will leave behind uneaten biscuits.”

Ispent much of my time at camp in the nurse’s station, pretending to be sick because I didn’t like Biscuit or being pushed in the lake by the other girls during swim class or participating in group games like capture the flag. I did manage to complete a session called “Future Nurses,” during which I learned how to make a hospital bed. This involved folding a cover sheet in a precise way so as to imprison the bedridden. I attended this session because the camp nurse gave me a steady supply of Scotch mints while I was under her care. I was devoted to her.

Scotch mints, unlike biscuits, are a pleasure to suck.

What about biscotti? This is an elongated biscuit of Italian origin sometimes dipped in chocolate to make it palatable to North American appetites. A dunked biscotti is a cookie in hiding because, once wet, it will partially soften.

But, even though it is softened by dunking, you must still suck on it vigorously to retrieve any taste. As for eating it dry, what’s required is gnawing.

Biscotti were rumoured to have been used by Christopher Columbus for the ocean voyage to invade America. He needed a food source for his crew that could resist moisture and mould.

Now, it’s chic to be seen in a café dunking a mould-free biscotti into an Americano while looking at your phone.

This represents the high point of biscuit life in North America.

In Scrabble, the word biscuit will get you eleven points. Cookie, a superior twelve.

I know of no Canadian child demanding a biscuit as a treat nor of any adult offering them one.

There is only one cookie that matters: chocolate chip.

Specifically, my aunt’s, which I remember her making with regular Hershey chips and the recipe from the package. She added ground walnuts and used butter, not margarine, even though her live-at-home adult son would not eat butter, only margarine. No one knew why this was.

My aunt baked her cookies in an oil stove. This may have been the secret to why they were so delicious. They snapped when you bit into them but were soft inside. I could eat ten in one sitting. Her son loved them too. He didn’t know they were made with butter.

“Never tell him,” she warned the younger cousins.

Neil Gaiman didn’t appear to love cookies when he wrote in American Gods, “The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”

For the record, long-dead cookies don’t become ghosts; they become petrified crumbs. Leave a cookie tin unopened for several years and you will discover the truth of this statement. Crumbs remain on the crumpled wax paper or gathered like mouse droppings in the tin’s rusty corners. Abandoned biscuits do not decompose, ever. They are waiting for your heirs to throw them out after your demise.

The nurse’s station was a separate hut and the only one in the entire camp that had heat. It was a peaceful place in comparison to camp life. The bed there had a plaid cover, a side table, and two pillows. When I wasn’t reading Little Lulu or Archie comics, I would stretch out and listen to the driving rain on the roof.

On the day before coming home, I attended a mandatory craft session in which we had to make a biblical sentence out of alphabet macaroni and then glue it onto a round piece of shellacked wood. Our efforts were to be gifts for our parents when we returned home.

I chose the shortest sentence on the list we were given: “God is love.” My gift looked like a decorated biscuit.

My father, who called himself an “unbeliever,” looked aghast when I gave it to him. What had he done by sending me to church camp?

Nothing, other than providing me with a lifelong hatred of crafts.

Biscuits are a form of roughage. Possibly useful for moving the bowels, as demonstrated in the puzzle I’ve been making notes about. The painting used for the puzzle is of a human stomach, painted in bowel-movement brown, inside of which is an assortment of large beige biscuits.

The puzzle has 500 pieces and a name, “Biscuit Basket,” that I’m certain refers to the contents of the stomach. The biscuits in the painting are whole, a testament to the fact that not even gastric juices can dissolve them.

I received it as a Christmas gift. Months later, it is still in its box because I don’t know where to begin. With the sausage-coloured intestines? The esophagus? The pretty but odd pink-and-blue background? I sometimes think of the artist enjoying himself at his easel. But was Biscuit Basket meant to be a vase on a table that somehow got away from him?

In any case, I have consulted my notes in order to reach a decision.

Will completing this jigsaw puzzle of the human digestive track add anything to my life?

Probably not. As Frank Zappa counselled, if the biscuit doesn’t entertain you, you know what to do with it.

M.A.C. Farrant
M.A.C. Farrant has published seventeen books of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. Her 2021 memoir, One Good Thing, was a BC bestseller. A nonfiction work, Little Animals That Creep In and Out of a Room: A Puzzle in a Hundred Pieces, will be released in 2023.