Wednesday, August 15, 2012


After a week of HP brown sauce making our food “tangy,” it seems time for something sweet. We turn somewhat reluctantly to the bright package of McVitie’s chocolate digestives that have been sitting on the back shelf of our pantry inspiring curiosity for the past couple of weeks. McVitie & Price—part of an agglomeration called United Biscuits since 1948—holds a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth as “Biscuit Manufacturers.”

Like every other American I understand that the English word “biscuit” translates to the American word “cookie.” But it’s a little more nuanced than that, especially when you start talking about digestive biscuits. McVitie’s have kind of a wholesome, wheaty taste best described as a cross between a Wheat Thin and a graham cracker. If that doesn’t sound good to you, consider that ours were covered on one side with a thick layer of milk chocolate. It works somehow. McVitie’s premiered in our house one morning as a special treat to accompany breakfast. Nathan liked them as much as I did, but he seemed skeptical about my use of the word biscuit. “This a cracker, Mommy,” he told me twice, a puzzled look on his face.

I had a great time researching McVitie’s, in part because the company’s website is so fun. You can check out either the distinctly British site or the international site, but it was at the latter that I found a page featuring their commercials from different countries. My favorite is one designed for the French market that points out English oddities and uses the self-deprecating slogan "They're English, but they're good." From the historical timeline I learn that this company’s roots trace back to 1830s Edinburgh (shout out to Scotland!) and that it baked the wedding cake for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947.

I was born in the early 80s, so I'm only familiar with footage of the wedding of Charles and Diana and, more recently, of William and Kate. It seems strange to envision a 21 year-old Queen Elizabeth at her own wedding. I admit I know very little about her early life and upbringing, but spending the last few weeks sampling her favorite bath soap and tea and preserves has helped to make a public persona seem much more personal. I find myself wanting to know much more than I do about Britain's monarch.

To satisfy my curiosity I made a trek to the Chicago Public Library one day on my lunch hour to browse royal biographies. There were dozens. I finally selected Robert Lacey’s Monarch, which was published more than 10 years ago in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. Lacey's detailed account of Queen Elizabeth's early years explains a lot about her. The Queen comes across as so formal and dignified and even standoffish in her public encounters, and it's been interesting to read that she was like this even as a toddler. In 1927, Princess Elizabeth's parents were dispatched by then King George V on a six-month tour of Australia. They left the eight month-old princess behind to be looked after by her grandparents and an aged nanny. Lacey suggests this shaped her character from an early age: she was constantly surrounded by very dignified grown-ups, so she too behaved like a miniature grown-up. In her formative years and as an older sister to Princess Margaret, Elizabeth always seemed to do the right thing, always seemed to model best behavior and do what was expected of her. After meeting her in 1928, Winston Churchill described the two year-old princess to his wife as having "an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant."

I find myself having a hard time relating to an even-tempered, abstemious child who always set a good example and did the right thing. That sounds like the opposite of a juvenile Chelsey, who had her mouth washed out with soap as often as she washed her hands, who once lost a bet made by her cousin at Easter dinner because she really couldn't keep from talking for a solid minute. Queen Elizabeth's life at times reads just as bland and boring as a wholemeal McVitie's digestive biscuit...but then you turn it over and see there are moments of intense joy, scandal, celebration, love, and crisis that are just as interesting and deep as a layer of milk chocolate. I can't wait to share more.

And I can't wait to buy more McVitie's chocolate digestives. My first package came from England (thanks again, Mom), but I hear you can pick them up at World Market. Fingers crossed that they sell the dark chocolate kind there...

Where to Buy: You can find McVitie's digestives at World Market.

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