I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort this week, the things that I do to quiet my brain without even realizing that that’s why I’m doing them.
On the Friday after the marathon bombings I was in my fourth hour of watching the news when I suddenly felt the desperate need to bake. It wasn’t the desire to eat something sweet that drove me to it, but the calm that measuring, weighing, sifting, creaming, whisking and waiting always brings me. The sadness and anxiety that I felt, that I had been feeling since that Monday, seemed bottomless, and I baked until I was out of flour, trying to reach the bottom of it so that I could come back up.
When you’re watching the same news story for six hours straight a language emerges for talking about that particular tragedy. In the hours before the suspect was taken into custody, news anchors said “manhunt” and “shoot-out” so many times that the words themselves started to sound like nonsense. Others talked of “reading the tea leaves” (code, I learned, for gleaning information by watching the movement of groups of police officers), and emphasized that Boston was a “ghost-town,” under “virtual lock-down.” There was talk of a white hat and a black hat, pressure cookers and IED’s, and the words “Boston Strong” filled all of my news-feeds.
One reporter in particular clung to the word “digest,” saying it in one form or another almost twenty times in four hours—“we’re still digesting,” “hard to digest,”—an odd word to grab on to, which is probably why it stuck out to me so much. Funny things happen with digestion when tragedy and grief are involved. We can’t eat, we over-eat, we crave things we’ve never craved before or things that we haven’t eaten since we were kids.
That morning, when all of my butter and flour and sugar had been reconstituted into cakes and bars, I muted the TV and hid under a blanket with my book—Tana French’s In The Woods. This book was exactly what I needed at that very moment—the well-written murder-mystery of my comfort-craving dreams, and I read it for hours, eating nearly an entire grapefruit cake in the meantime, until I finally felt more like myself.
As murder detectives, Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan are constantly engulfed by disaster and tragedy, forever grappling with ways to manage their grief. They drink too much, they sleep with the wrong people, they make each other greasy dinners and pop handfuls of anxiety medication and stay up all night. When all else fails, Cassie eats chocolate digestive biscuits, lots of them. She hides them in her desk drawers and buys them at the market, people bring them to her as bribes and peace offerings, and in an odd twist that I’m unsure of how to interpret they are also the last meal of the twelve-year-old girl whose murder the book centers around.
You could certainly say that the ubiquity of chocolate biscuits in this book has only to do with the fact that the novel is set in Ireland and that French is an Irish writer. Since the first digestive biscuit was created in the 19th century, digestives have become part of daily life in the UK, with an estimated fifty-two biscuits being consumed every second. Digestive biscuits were originally created to aid in digestion, the thought being that the coarse bran and heavy amounts of baking soda in the biscuits would settle the stomach and help move things along. This was of particular interest to the Victorians who were preoccupied with their finicky insides.
Exactly two years ago today Monica Hess wrote an article for the Washintgon Post about the history of the digestive biscuit (which is where I got the 52-biscuits-per-second statistic) and it has stuck with me these two years, tumbling around in the back of my head every time Cassie Maddox had a particularly traumatizing day and reached for a chocolate biscuit for comfort.
Extrapolating meaning from a tea biscuit is a bit like extrapolating meaning from tea leaves, which is to say, you can probably find meaning if you’re looking for it. But we can all agree on this: A tea biscuit means tea. Tea means sitting down with a proper cup. A cup might mean a table and perhaps a napkin. Nothing about a messy biscuit says “on the go.” Nothing about it is fast or inventive. There is no expectation that it should be particularly delicious; there is no expectation that life should be particularly delicious. Although the rest of the cooking world is obsessed with artisanal — every baked good a unique, hand-formed art project — McVitie’s is a champion of sameness.
There is immense comfort in this sameness, in the ritual and the history that is present in every bite of a digestive. During World Word II, British soldiers were given two different kinds of biscuits in their rations–two plain and two chocolate–tucked away in their rucksacks with tins of industrial-grade beans and chipped beef. I think about them, scared and young and far from home, and the comfort that these familiar little disks might have brought them in the face of tragedy and disaster and violence.
After hours of being held captive by news that was becoming increasingly repetitive, the comfort that reading and baking had brought me earlier began to wear thin, and I forced myself to leave the house and seek it elsewhere. I took the train into Union Square and visited my friend Joe at work and he made me a cocktail with burnt rosemary and good gin and it tasted like Christmas and damp earth and made my chest warm. I walked to Chelsea and smelled new books in a tiny bookstore and ate chicken liver so good it immediately brought the color back to my cheeks. I walked from Herald Square to the battery and then home across the Williamsburg Bridge and I ate a green tomato like an apple and it was good and musky and tart. I thought about the city that I’m in, but mostly I thought about the city that I’m from, with its bruised history and mixed up roads and good, good people. The Shabbat sirens wailed in the neighborhoods below me and I cried a little into my tomato as a throng of Hasidic boys rushed past me to make it home before sun-down, and I thought about the eighteen years I spent at the Boston Marathon feeling safe and happy and proud and I took some time to digest it, all of it, everything.
Makes 1 dozen 3” biscuits
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup wheat bran
5 Tbs dark brown sugar
4 Tbs butter, browned and chilled to solid
1 Tbs shortening, chilled
½ teaspoon good vanilla
3 Tbs heavy cream
1 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tsp shortening
Coarse sea salt for sprinkling
Pre-heat your oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place all of your dry ingredients in the bowl of a food-processor and pulse a few times to get everything evenly mixed. Add your butter and lard and pulse until the fats are evenly distributed throughout. Mix your vanilla and cream together and slowly add it to the dough with the mixer running. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and form it into a ball. The dough will be very crumbly (see picture), but don’t worry it will come together. Place the dough between two pieces of parchment paper and roll it to 1/8” thick. Cut with a 3” cookie cutter and bake 15-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and firm.
Melt chocolate and shortening over a double boiler and whisk until smooth. Spread melted chocolate over cooled cookies and sprinkle with coarse salt.