Digestive Biscuits in Their Proper Context

We begin our search in the fetid mire of Victorian England.

Recently, Dear Husband brought home a box of iconic food from Great Britain. He helped some wonderful British clients buy a home in the area, and they were so happy to have his expertise in this competitive real estate market that they were generous enough to share the culinary wealth with us. One package really caught my eye. McVitie’s Digestive, it said. New to me.

I can’t think of a less appealing name for a foodstuff, but then the Brits are well known for their questionable food names. Two words: Spotted Dick. Not good enough for you? How about Rumbledethumps, Eton Mess, Mucky Dripping and Toad in the Hole? I can’t give a qualified review of most of these, having only tried Toad in the Hole (which is actually quite good.) But it’s as if the experts in the culinary arts across the pond have a singular goal of making things sound as unappetizing as humanly possible.

Frankly, British food has a bad reputation in general. Don’t believe me? Google it and a lot of articles will pop up. But having only changed planes in that neck of the woods, I can’t really speak with any authority on the subject. And after writing this post, I probably couldn’t make it through customs. They’d most likely spin me around and send me flying back home to McDonald’s.

But let’s get back to the Digestives. At first glance they reminded me of the dietary wafer that my grandmother used to force my mother to eat on her way to school in the 1940’s. My mother said they were disgusting, so she would throw them into the neighbor’s bushes. I have no idea what they were for, but my mother wasn’t having it.

Surely this couldn’t be a similar product, though. How would it have remained popular since 1892 if no one wanted to eat it? And this particular version sitting before me was coated in my Achilles heel: milk chocolate. As far as I’m concerned, anything covered in milk chocolate has got to have some redeeming qualities.

So I decided to give them a try. I wish they had been bad. I really do. But no. I could have eaten the entire sleeve of 16 in one sitting. This is a disaster. At 83 calories per biscuit, I’d weigh 900 pounds in no time. And now I’ll know these delicious things are out there in the world, calling my name, coaxing me to dash upon the rocks of obesity. Fortunately, they’re not as readily available in America, or I’d be doomed.

But why on earth would you name this ambrosia, this food of the Gods, “Digestive”? I had to get to the bottom of this. My research sent me deep into the fetid mire of Victorian England.

I eased my way into the subject by visiting Wikipedia. There, I learned that these biscuits were first invented in Scotland in1839. McVitie’s took up the torch in 1892 and started mass producing them at a time when mass production was very new. To this day, the chocolate covered ones are ranked as the U.K’s favorite snack by a wide variety of sources.

The commonly told story about the name for this devilish treat goes like this: One of the ingredients is sodium bicarbonate, which has antacid properties. I’d hazard a guess that those properties greatly diminish when you bake them into a cookie, but people in the 1800’s didn’t know that.

And that’s it. That’s all most people have to say on the subject. But the era in which they were created has long fascinated me. And after the hundreds of documentaries I’ve seen, I have developed a rather interesting back story for Digestives.

First of all, I’m amazed that humanity survived the Victorian era. The life expectancy in England in 1892 was 45 years. And it ranged between 40 and 50 years from 1852 to 1907. Talk about slow progress.

Disease was rife in Victorian England. Many died of smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, and influenza. (Three cheers for modern vaccines!)

The first cholera epidemic was in 1831, and it took the Victorians until 1866 to figure out what caused it and successfully combat it. It was cholera that caused them to create boards of health with the goals of regulating clean water supplies, better drainage, and, in the 1870’s, the focus sharpened to combat unsanitary urban living conditions. They were fighting an uphill battle.

The Victorians were rather obsessed with health, probably because it was in short supply in urban slums. They didn’t have cures for any major diseases, and this led to some rather unorthodox treatments. They swore by emetics (which cause vomiting), laxatives, and leeches. There was no such thing as aspirin. They thought arsenic was something you should take for anemia. Asthmatics were instructed to inhale tobacco smoke. In 1899, people were prescribed laxatives for chicken pox. Mind you, this was some 60 years after the industrial revolution. Some sectors of their culture were advancing more quickly than others.

Improper food storage had caused its fair share of illness, or at least it was often blamed for it, right along with “miasmas”. People were streaming into the cities for work, and therefore the need to transport and store food became more urgent. City folk couldn’t eat fresh and local as they used to do on the farm.

The good news is that trains made food much easier to transport, and this was also the era when food with a long shelf life was invented. Thank the Victorians for condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. Meat canning started around 1865, causing most middle-class families to obtain can openers, which were first patented in 1855. Refrigerated meat transport started in the 1880’s.

So while people were becoming less worried about obtaining food, they were still worried about their health, and a lot of quack medicine was available. People were willing to try anything.

Snake Oil Linament was actually a thing sold in pharmacies, and it was supposed to cure Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Lumbago, Toothache, Sprains, and Swellings. Obviously it didn’t work. That’s where we get the term “Snake Oil Salesman” for a person who is trying to sell you something bogus.

In a time when cocaine and morphine were often given to children and radium baths were offered in hotels, people really must have dreaded getting sick, so they’d look toward prevention.

From all these bits and pieces, I have a theory about Digestives. You probably wouldn’t want to market your product as a delicious biscuit when bakeries were the place people normally went for such things. So some brilliant marketer probably suggested they should market it, instead, as an aid for digestion. (Who knows? They may have even believed it at the time. But I tend to take a cynical view of marketers.)

Thus, this product was named to target the many people with stomach issues or those wishing to avoid such maladies. Eventually, as life expectancy increased and the need for Digestives decreased, I’m sure that people remembered how delicious these things were. I suspect that’s when this product began a slow transition from being an intestinal cure to being “just” a biscuit as they are viewed today.

So why hasn’t the company changed the name to suit more modern sensibilities? Tradition. Name recognition. Most Brits probably don’t even realize how strange the name is, because strange names quickly become commonplace to our ears. For example, I work with a great guy who goes by the name Skeeter. For about a week and a half, I struggled to call a grown man a cutesy name for a mosquito. But after a while, I became accustomed to it, and now I can’t imagine calling him anything else. If a cookie were delicious enough, I’d buy it even if it were called Skeeter, so why not Digestive?

Now, the challenge becomes finding ways not to order Digestives online. My waistline will thank me if I succeed. But they really are good, so please don’t send me any. I’m serious. Don’t. I would not appreciate the gesture at all. I’m having a hard enough time resisting the urge to dive face first into one of their boxes as it is.


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Walking Between Cultures

One of the things I love most about the virtual world of Second Life is that you get to meet people from all over the world. One friend, C.N., is a young man who is an amazingly talented artist from Vietnam. I met him just as he was finishing his secondary education and applying to universities abroad. I remember how exciting that time is. You have a world of opportunities in front of you. You can go so many different directions. There so many possibilities.

I was even more intrigued because his experience must be all the more heightened as he was going from one cultural extreme to another. What does that feel like? How does it impact you?

He just successfully completed year one and is back home on holiday, so I asked him to talk a little bit about his experiences. What follows is what he was kind enough to share. Thanks C.N.!

My first year in UK has just passed – I feel like it was just one week – with a lot of enjoyable experiences.

Though the university had got seven Vietnamese students before me, many people told me that I was the first Vietnamese they had ever met, after constantly mistaking me for a Chinese. I can say that I have busted a lot of misconceptions – very funny ones – that British people hold about Vietnam. Many of those who are old enough to have lived the period of the two wars in my country thought that we spoke French as the primary language instead of a unique mother tongue. When they learnt that we have our own language, Vietnamese, they asked me if its pronunciation and alphabet are similar to Chinese or Mandarin, and were pretty surprised by the big difference.

Before I left for England, all that I have heard about British people had been their posh manner. My parents – not sure from whom they got the idea – kept warning me about being bullied and discriminated by native students. They were also very worried that I would become tight–fisted and ‘starving in a sense’ as a result of being discouraged by the extremely expensive cost of living, which is also a common misconception in Vietnam and which had almost made my parents reconsider letting me go to England.

All those misconceptions seem to originate from different people’s experience in big cities like London. I myself went to London once, and I must say I didn’t enjoy it. Not only prices are costly; a smile is also something people cannot give for free. The atmosphere of the small city where I stayed is just the opposite. The people there are very friendly and adorable, which immediately made me feel at home. I’ve got to know many local people – here everyone knows everyone! – who very often invited me over for meals. I experienced the same friendliness on campus; one of my loveliest memories is getting yelled at by a professor for addressing him too formally.

After all, there’s no big difference between the lives I had amongst the small communities in UK and in my country, since – you know what they say – the people make the places!


[Image credit: volunteercard.com]

The Humor Spectrum

When I was young I couldn’t stand British humor. I just didn’t get it. That left me feeling as if I were not in on the joke, and naturally I didn’t enjoy that. I avoided British humor for years.

About a decade ago, though, I decided to give it another try, and now I love it. The difference between British and American humor, I often find, is that British humor assumes you’re intelligent and goes from there. American humor often seems to assume you’re stupid, and therefore goes for the lowest common denominator. British humor forces you to think, and American humor spoon feeds you as if you were a baby in a high chair. (Of course there are exceptions.) I think that says a lot about our respective cultures and our general expectations in life.

Last night I was introduced to, of all things, Finnish humor, in the form of a movie called Ariel, by Aki Kaurismäki. Many Americans might not view this as a comedy, because no one in it laughs or even smiles. Not once. But once you get used to that, you realize that in actual fact the film is hysterical. All these strange and, frankly, tragic things keep happening to the main character, and everyone, including him, seems to take it as commonplace. It’s life, you know? What are you gonna do? No, this film did not make me laugh out loud, but inside I was ROFLMAO. And in the end, I came away still smiling. You can’t say that about many experiences these days. I highly recommend this movie.

This got me thinking about the many forms of humor that are out there. I absolutely despise humor at the expense of others. If the only thing that makes you laugh is humiliating someone else, then I think there’s something seriously wrong with you. I don’t particularly enjoy practical jokes for that same reason. It takes sophistication to toe that line without lapsing into cruelty, and most people aren’t that sophisticated.

I once saw a viral video that everyone seemed to find hilarious. This guy unscrews the railing on his stairs, greases the top step, and piles pillows up at the bottom. He then does something to his sleeping wife (I can’t remember what because I was so horrified by the aftermath) that causes her to leap out of bed and chase him down the stairs, and sure enough, she flies down the stairs and winds up in a heap at the bottom. She’s clearly hurt, and he’s clearly remorseful. But she’s lucky she wasn’t killed, and could very well be in some form of pain for the rest of her life. That’s funny? Here’s a useful rule of thumb: if when setting up a practical joke you say to yourself, “What could possibly go wrong?” Don’t do it. Just… don’t.

Puns, on the other hand, generally don’t hurt anyone. I love a really, really bad pun. I think they appeal to me because they poke fun at my favorite thing on earth, the spoken word.

My favorite form of humor by far is the self-deprecating kind. I think it takes a very confident person to be able to poke fun at himself, and I find that to be extremely attractive. But again, this requires a certain level of sophistication. I dated someone many years ago who lacked the necessary amount of subtlety. He would insult himself brutally, thinking people would find this funny. In fact, it made people uncomfortable, and caused them to pity him. It’s one of the many reasons we broke up. Frankly, people felt he was weird, and it’s hard to remain in a relationship with someone you feel sorry for.

Humor comes in all shapes and sizes. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate a wider swath of the spectrum. You gotta love variety.


The deadpan humor that is Ariel.


Caught up in Captioning

Most bridgetenders watch at least a dozen movies a week at work. There isn’t much else to do. On any given week I’ll watch anything from Fellini’s “Amarcord” to “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”. (Tell me I’m not well-rounded. I dare you.) And when you have to drown out the roar of traffic and the crackle of the marine radio (not every call is for us, after all), you get into the habit of turning on the captions of the movies in question, so as not to miss anything.

I never really thought about the person who actually creates the captioning for those movies until I became one of them myself. I now have a side job as a captioner.  Oh, I haven’t hit the big time yet. I do cartoons, not feature films. But still.

The beauty of this work is that I can do as much or as little of it as I want, from the privacy of my own, uh…home, of course. The downside is that one is paid by the job, not by the hour, and I think I’ve gotten as good at it as I will ever be, which means I’m averaging about $2.65 an hour. Peanuts, yes, but mighty convenient peanuts, and I have to say it’s a lot of fun. If it weren’t so much fun, I probably wouldn’t bother.

I’ve done a couple of really strange cartoons from countries with such cultural differences that I couldn’t really grasp their appeal, but I have settled on one series that is a modern British version of The Magic Roundabout, and it’s delightful. I’ll be sad when I’ve run out of episodes.

And what is happening is magical, indeed. Since I have to concentrate to do the captioning, I feel as though I’m right in there with the characters, almost as if I’m part of the family. I’ve gotten to know each personality, and can anticipate how they’ll think and react. That helps me figure out what they’re about to say. Being able to practically finish their sentences has increased my captioning speed a great deal.

And I love the idea that I’m actually helping people. Somewhere out there, someone is improving their reading or English skills, or someone who is hearing impaired will read my captions and it will allow them to enjoy the show in question as much as the rest of his or her friends and family.

I want to make sure they get the full experience. I take it very seriously. I want to emphasize the right words using italics. I want to break sentences in logical places, taking into account the way the words are flowing from the speaker’s lips. I want my sound effects to really give you a sense of the sounds. I want the captions to pop up at just the right moment and remain on the screen for a sufficient length of time to be comfortably read.

One thing’s for certain. I’ll never look at captioning in the same way again. Now I’ll always think of the person who did it, and how they’re trying to make a living in a very creative way. I’ll appreciate it when they take pride in their work, and sometimes I’ll say to myself, for example, “I would have dealt with that sound differently.”

It’s kind of an art form, when you think about it.


“Those Towel Heads Can’t Be Trusted.”

Yup, that actually came out of a coworker’s mouth the other day while we were discussing the Boston bombings. And I must admit I went off. I couldn’t help it. I’m so sick of the ignorance and bigotry. This is what I said to him:

“Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good.”

                                                                  -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Naturally his response was, “Huh?” To which I replied, “Do you seriously think the Muslims are the only group with a lunatic fringe, a mentally deranged and evil element? Seriously? Okay, then how do you explain the following?”

  • Adolph Hitler was a Catholic.
  • Pol Pot was a Buddhist.
  • Stalin, responsible for the execution of hundreds of thousands of people, went to a Greek Orthodox Seminary.
  • Pinochet was a Catholic.
  • Vlad the Impaler, torturer of thousands, was Christian.
  • Baruch Goldstein, an Orthodox Jew, perpetrated the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in the city of Hebron, killing 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounding another 125.
  • Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, was Christian.
  • Ted Bundy was a Methodist.
  • James Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, Colorado, was Lutheran.
  • David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, called himself a born again Christian.
  • Sampson Kanderayi was a Christian who killed more than 30 people to appease evil spirits.
  • Andrew Kehoe, a Roman Catholic, blew up 45 people, 38 of them children, in a school in Lansing, Michigan.
  • Wade Michael Page, the man who shot six people in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin last year, was a devout Christian.
  • Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly killing  150,000 men, women, and children and many many more in the years that followed, was interested in Hinduism.
  • Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized into the Church of Christ, the religion of his childhood, after he went to prison.
  • The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was an atheist.
  • Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, was Lutheran.
  • Ivan the Terrible was Russian Orthodox.
  • Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who shot all the Amish school girls, was a member of the Faith Church.
  • Torquemada, the poster child of the Spanish Inquisition, was, of course, Catholic.
  • Timothy McVeigh was a Roman Catholic.
  • Adolf Eichmann was raised Lutheran, and was an active member of the Evangelical Church until 1937.
  • Mao Tse-tung, who was responsible for 40-70 MILLION deaths, was an atheist.
  • Genghis Khan prayed to the Burhan Haldun Mountain, and consulted Buddhist Monks, Muslims, Christian missionaries, and Taoist monks.
  • Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was Catholic.

And how do you explain the following?

  • The vast majority of the participants in World Wars I and II were not Muslims.
  • In Rwanda, where the rivers have run with blood, 56.9% of the population is Roman Catholic, 26% is Protestant, 11.1% is Seventh-day Adventist, 4.6% is Muslim, 1.7% claims no religious affiliation, and 0.1% practices traditional indigenous beliefs such as the Jabiyan ethno-religious belief system.
  • Angola, home to one of the most brutal civil wars in history, is a predominately Christian country.
  • 33 people died in the Salem Witch Trials, which were conducted by a Puritan government.
  • Very few Muslims resided in America during our Revolutionary or Civil wars.
  • The vast majority of the owners of slave ships that transported slaves to the Americas were Christians.
  • The Aztecs hadn’t even HEARD of Islam, yet still managed to perform their human sacrifices.
  • Apartheid in South Africa was perpetuated by the Afrikaner minority. This system was responsible for the death of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. Afrikaners are predominately Calvinists.
  • At least 110,000 Iraqis have died since we Americans declared war on them. Some say it’s more like 1,033,000. 4,486 US soldiers were also killed. Our main justification for that war? 9/11. The number of Iraqis who were involved in the attack on the World Trade Center? 0. Another justification for that war: weapons of mass destruction. The number of weapons of mass destruction found? 0.
  • The murder-suicides in Jonestown were conducted by the People’s Temple Cult.
  • It was Christians who gave blankets infected with smallpox to the American Indians.
  • It was the US Public Health Service that intentionally misled 399 black sharecroppers into thinking they were being treated for their syphilis when in fact they were not. (They wanted to see how the disease would progress. Nice, huh?)
  • The Crusades were started by Pope Urban II.
  • When the Chinese tried to stop opium from being brought to their shores by the British, the British started the Opium Wars.
  • Germans slaughtered 10,000 Nama in South West Africa.
  • 11 Australian men, 10 of European descent and one of African descent, slaughtered 30 unarmed Aboriginals, mostly women, children, and old men, like they were dogs. It was called the Myall Creek massacre.

Do you still think the followers of Islam have cornered the market on murder and violence? Give me a break. We’re equally bad. And equally good, but that’s a subject for another blog entry.

So the next time you’re tempted to spew your Islamophobia, at least now you’ll have some facts, which means you’ll have to admit, at least to yourself, that what you’re trying to convince yourself of is actually nothing but hatred and ignorance. No culture is composed entirely of saints or completely of sinners. Stay stupid if you want to, but at least have the backbone to own it.

“Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good.”

                                                                             -Ralph Waldo Emerson


(Image credit: peaceisgood.net)


I once knew a guy who spoke with a French accent. The thing is, he was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. None of his siblings had French accents, nor did his parents.

I also know an American writer who absolutely insists on using British spelling at every opportunity. Colour. Theatre. He also uses antiquated words such as “fortnight”. Honestly, when’s the last time you’ve ever heard anyone say fortnight?

I also have known a few people who refuse to modernize. I worked with a lady, I swear to God, who still has a bouffant hairstyle. People call her “helmet head” behind her back. Another one likes to wear cat glasses and pillbox hats.

And then there are those who like to be on the cutting edge. Too far on the cutting edge. They tended to wear one glove when Michael Jackson did, and had Flock of Seagulls hair.

And frankly, senior citizens wearing short shorts or miniskirts…that’s just a little bit sad.

I’m all for individuality. Believe me, I am. And I myself have a tendency to zig when I should zag every now and then. It’s great fun to push the boundaries and flout convention. But when you stubbornly cling to things waaaay past their expiration date, or go where no sane person will, that’s not trendy. That’s not stylish. It’s pathetic.

I have two theories about people like this. Either they are so out of touch with reality, so ignorant of all social cues, that they just don’t know any better, and/or they have such low self-esteem that they think they have to go to such lengths to be accepted.

Prithee, get with the programme.


Image Credit: http://www.demotivationalposters.org