International squabbles settled: cookies vs. biscuits

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Back in Episode 54, listener Michele asked: ‘Why are cookies called Biscuits in Europe? To us, biscuits are something that come with overly fried food at KFC, not a sweet dessert best dunked in coffee. And if you call cookies “biscuits”, what name do you use for the soft flaky bread we Yanks call biscuits?’

The Answer Me This! team get approximately 60% of their energy from biscuits, so were greedily qualified to explain that ‘biscuit’ derives from the Latin for ‘twice-cooked’ and that said ‘soft flaky bread’ would be pretty much the same as what is known in Britain as a scone (although such an item would never be seen in a British KFC, unless a careless old lady had accidentally knocked her cake-stand into the deep fat fryer).

But a question remained: why do Americans call cookies ‘cookies’? Enter David from Canada, a man used to this biscuit/cookie confusion because ‘as a Canadian, we have to deal with both terms’:

It’s because New York used to be New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam was settled by the Dutch, and because New York was so important to the development of the American lexicon, Dutch words were already being used for a lot of everyday items by the time the British took over. Cookie derives from the Dutch word “koekje”, which means a small cake.

As for the American biscuit, you’re right. It’s essentially a bland, sometimes heavy, scone. Often used to sop up gravy. Here in Canada, we call them tea biscuits.

‘Tea biscuits’?? That’s opening up a whole new world of befuddlement! If that’s the name you give them, what do you call the rich tea biscuit, which, confusingly, is far less rich than the Canadian tea biscuit, and completely hopeless when introduced to gravy? I call the rich tea biscuit a tedious waste of snack-time, but I doubt that title has spread across the Atlantic.

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2 Responses to “International squabbles settled: cookies vs. biscuits”

  1. Ebba Lytle Says:

    Well, I’m Canadian (have lived in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) and I agree… Canadians often use either/or terms (British vs American) for things. However, I’ve never called the American biscuit a “tea biscuit”. I call it a “baking powder biscuit” and have done so for nearly 75 years (my whole life). Baking powder biscuits are savoury and served with dinner/supper… or eaten at breakfast with butter and jam (no clotted cream). Scones are not the same and have been called scones or “tea biscuits” by instructors when I was taking cooking/baking classes. The scones I know and love are sweet, dense, and often have fruit (raisins particularly) mixed and baked in. In other words, “tea biscuits”.

  2. waiaria rewha Says:

    biscuits suck they are yuck haha

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