Within my teaching box

Inside an old hatbox is a tin. That tin has a peacock on the top and is called Table Talk Dainties.

I bought it years ago, to store spices in. In 1922 in Australia, you could buy the tin, for two shillings sixpence. It says so, in this advertisement:

Advertisement courtesy the National Library of Australia

Table Talk was a biscuit factory (‘cookies’ to Americans, but definitely ‘biscuits’ to Australians) in Prahran, Melbourne. It was close to Prahran market, where I was taught how to identify old potatoes and new apples when I was very young. There’s a letter from the factory online concerning a biscuit wrapper who wished to leave after four years of work, waiting for us to read it.

You can still find traces of the firm if you look from the railway station towards the old factory, however, the factory closed a while back and the building is now luxury housing, according to an advertisement, but if you look for 38 Charles Street in reality, I suspect that you’ll still find the outside of a factory, plain and practical.

It’s a lot more fun to keep a teaching box if everything within it (including the containers) is full of history.

At the time I stored spices in the tin, it contained one hundred and twenty-nine of them. I’d have my students group them into categories according to which country and period cooked with them. I’d cooked with more than the hundred and twenty-nine, and placed just a small amount of each in specimen bags. Occasionally students asked about the tin, but mostly they wanted to know what was in it. When I brought it into a new class, I’d keep the tin closed at first. I placed it on the front desk and played with it from time to time, to whet their curiosity. Adults were led into learning through the temptation of the closed tin.

I needed to do this. Some people are amazing with foodstuffs they don’t recognise and want to understand everything instantly and to find out what different cultures used each of them historically, but in each and every class of adults there is at least one person who will worry. I wanted the contents of the tin to be explored. And by making them unreachable and placing them inside a tin with a peacock on the top, that’s precisely what happened. When the tin was finally opened, there were always a couple of students who led the way and wanted to get their hands on what was inside, and to explore.

These days I’m not teaching food history and the tin contains other things. This means I’m doing to you today precisely what I did to my poor students back then. You know that inside my beautiful hatbox is an even more beautiful tin and that inside the tin is… let me count… twenty objects.

I won’t introduce you to them all immediately. I might find something from the biscuit tin next month or maybe from the hatbox itself. This means, in any given month, you could meet something from the tin, or something from the hatbox or something larger that roams free in my flat, along with Emma Pallett’s scrapbook.

The lure of the unknown is good, but the lure of the hinted is even better, so let me just say that these objects include a rather old hair tool, my great-grandfather’s razor, a portable medical kit and some really interesting cooking equipment.

I have so many objects to explore in my monthly blogpost. I use them for teaching, mainly, and for my novels. The big items and the most decorative aren’t in the hatbox at all, but scattered around my flat. Eventually you might meet a pamphlet by HG Wells, or a glass jar that once contained something less-than-delicious, or some Kamakura carving. All these things (except for the scrapbook) are a long way away. Before I leave you today, however, I think we need a recipe to celebrate those biscuits that someone ate nearly a hundred years ago.

One of the great Australian and New Zealand biscuits is the ANZAC. It was named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the biscuit is still cooked, especially around 25 April, which is a public holiday in commemoration of the Gallipoli landings. The perfect biscuit wasn’t invented instantly, and researchers found two prior recipes that were quite different to the one that became classic.

If my biscuit tin weren’t entirely full of other things, I’d be very tempted to fill it with biscuits made from the first recipe, for just reading the recipe makes me want one with a cup of tea.

Open with care…




Within my teaching box — 5 Comments

      • These biscuits shouldn’t be impossibly sweet, despite the treacle. The commercial sort one buys today aren’t, and they’re the direct descendants. What they should be is so hard you have to dunk them in tea to make them easy to eat, which makes them perfect for a Tea Tent! People can’t just eat them – they will need the tea.

  1. I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of what is in your hatbox. Today you’ve made me hungry for ANZAC biscuits and that is a bad thing because I don’t have the ingredients on hand to make them.The old recipes sound good too. I wonder how much treacle I have? (We are talking about golden syrup as opposed to molasses there, aren’t we?)

    • It’s neither golden syrup nor molasses. Runnier than molasses, less sugary and more dense than golden syrup. If you use golden syrup, it’ll still be OK, just a different flavour.