When Lucy graduated from Brownies to Girl Guides, she wrote a story about the 55-year-old tradition of door-to-door biscuit selling. It went like this.
Girls at business
Some laddies walking along the street sailing Girl gide Biscuits. They bump into a man very tall and slim but greddy for Biscuits, Girl Gide biscuits. So they gave him two pakets of girl gide Biscuits. He (the man) wanted more girl gide Biscuits so they gave him 3 pakets.
Lucy was right. It is a business. A business worth $1.4 million a year. Accounting for 54 percent of the charitable organisation’s annual income.
On a tepid Thursday evening in early March, there is a minor crisis at Freemans Bay Community Centre, where the Ponsonby Brownies and Girl Guides meet every week. A massive crash on Auckland’s Southern Motorway has meant gridlock and the chocolate and mini biscuits are trapped en route. Salvation eventually arrives in a small red hatchback, a mum behind the wheel. A cheer goes up.
Ella (10), Isla (10), Georgina (nine), Maddy (nine) and Maggie (seven), with their leader Cornelia Martin-Austin (24), head to Franklin Rd. As they walk up the street famous for its flashy Christmas light displays and proximity to Ponsonby Road’s gay pride parade and pretentious bars, they sing. “We are the Girl Guides/The mighty, mighty Girl Guides/And if they don’t hear us/Then we shout a little louder!”
At the first house, a comfortable wooden bungalow, a tall and slim man comes to the door, but he isn’t greedy for biscuits. “No, actually,” he says, “I don’t want any Girl Guide biscuits. But I can give you some money to not want them.”
Doesn’t he like those short, buttery circles? Doesn’t he like to nibble around the trefoil? Doesn’t he like to sandwich them with butter, cold from the fridge? Doesn’t he like the modern chocolate version?
“I just don’t have a sweet tooth,” he says.
At a lesson in selling the previous week, the girls were instructed not to go to houses with a security pad on the gate, but in this inner-city, middle-class suburb of Auckland, every second house does.
A glamorous peroxide blonde is home a few doors up. She wants two packets. One chocolate. One plain.
Amanda Dove is 22 and comes from Pennsylvania. She’s here on a working holiday and thought she’d volunteer as a trainee leader. She’s tagging along tonight to watch and learn. “At home,” she says, “everyone waits for Girl Scout Biscuit season.” Apparently they have heaps more flavours. Coconut and peanut butter and peppermint and shortbread sandwiches.
The barbarous growl of a dog at the neighbouring villa doesn’t deter Maggie from rapping brightly on the door. The owner hasn’t got any cash. Could the girls come back tomorrow? “We’ll try,” promises Ella.
A little girl in shorty pyjamas answers three houses along. Her mother comes to the door. She looks flustered. “I’d love to,” she says, “but I don’t know if I’ve got enough money.”
“I’ve got $17,” says the little girl. “In my piggy bank.”
Down a shared driveway, two girls knock at one house, two at the other. “It’s a New Zealand institution!” calls the enthusiastic middle-aged occupant to the muscular woman in exercise gear opposite. “She’s from Italy,” she explains. The fit Italian takes a couple of boxes of minis. “In Italy,” she says, “we don’t have this. I never seen it.”
Two girls and a guy are outside a flat further up. The girl in the floaty floral pants is strumming a ukulele. She could be at Woodstock. Her leggy friend in the cut-offs is apologetic. “I just got some off a girl at work,” she says. “Good luck!”
'IT'S ALL ABOUT SELF-SUFFICIENCY'
In a newsletter Girl Guiding New Zealand sends home at the beginning of March, the only month the biscuits are available, it tries to convince sometimes reluctant parents that the fundraising exercise (each girl has to sell a minimum of five cartons) is beneficial not just to the organisation, but their daughters, too.
“By selling biscuits, it is a great lesson for girls that nothing in life comes for free and they learn about earning money to help pay for what they receive. It is all about self-sufficiency and being able to fend for ourselves and not be dependent on others.”
It’s also a lesson that most people are good and kind. A man asks the girls if they have change for a $20. (During their preparatory session the week prior, Cornelia introduced the idea of inflation. At $3.50 a packet, the price point has been made the same for all biscuits this year. Antonia, nine, was dismayed. “It seems a little weird that you’re not paying more for the chocolate.”)
Although the girls have been practising giving change, there are long pauses and much discussion when any is required. “You need seven dollars,” says Maggie. “No, 10 dollars,” says Georgina. “So,” says the man, “if it’s $3.50, you need to give me $16.50. Or you could just give me $15 and we’ll leave it at that.”
At the backpackers in the once grand old mansion across the road, two super-tanned and attractive Canadian retirees are on their way out. “Are those Girl Guide bikkies?” asks the one with the goatee. He takes two minis. “Thanks, Ella,” he says. “You got me!” “At school I just got wiped out of minis,” says Ella. The retiree in the maxi dress is ushering the others around the corner, where grungy young guys are drinking beer and smoking something they’ve rolled themselves. “Cookies and beer!” They laugh and line up.
The biscuit sellers have been told to come in uniform. Baby-pink t-shirts for the Brownies. Baby-blue for the Guides. Blue or black shorts. And your sash. Don’t forget your sash. Worn diagonally across the chest, ensuring the trefoil isn’t covered up.
A German guy with tattoos crawling up his arms and on to his neck is wearing a Fanta-orange t-shirt.
It says “Los Angeles County Jail”. He munches through a packet of plains. “Yum, yum,” he says. Later he chases the girls down the street. “Vait,” he says. “Two more packets of chocolates. These are good, man.”
BAKING BY THE MILLIONS
This year, 33,032,538 Girl Guide biscuits were manufactured by Griffins. Three years ago there was a bit of a to-do when a new oven at the company’s Auckland factory resulted in a below-par biscuit. Dry, complained the customers. Pitted. An indistinct logo. There was much speculation that the recipe had changed, but Griffins swore it hadn’t been altered since it was first developed in 1957, and in 2011 they returned to form.
The girls say they never tire of them, although Cornelia admits to getting a tad sick of the vanilla biscuit after a while. Usually the girls ice biscuits at their meeting to mark the beginning of biscuit month, but this year Cornelia tries something different. “We’re going to make rum balls,” she says. “Not with rum, of course.” The girls sit cross-legged in groups around large plastic bowls. Cornelia empties a tin of brown gloop into each one. “It’s caramel,” she says. The packaging says soy milk. Is that for the girls with a lactose intolerance? No, she says, we were donated it.
The girls cram their biscuits into snap lock bags and thump them and trample them. Cornelia and a mother helper tip in cocoa powder, sultanas and chocolate chips. The girls stir. “It looks like something that comes out of, you know,” says Antonia. But the girls are happy with their edible turds. And when parents arrive to pick them up, they proudly display them.
“Fees?” says Cornelia on the quiet to one girl. “Feed?” she replies. “Fees,” says Cornelia. “Feel?” asks the girl. “Fees!” says Cornelia. “Term fees. You haven’t paid your fees yet.” A waiting dad comes over and slips Cornelia a hundy. “I’ll sort you out for the rest next time.”
The last property to try on Franklin Rd is a boarding house. There is no security gate. The girls bowl up to the front door. There is a smell like old boiled meat. An old guy with a glob of food down his front says he’ll take a packet of plain ones.
He slurs. An old guy with a limp painstakingly counts out enough shrapnel for a packet of chocolate ones. Then he spots the Sunday Star Times photographer on the footpath. “Hey!” he says. “What’s he taking pictures of?” And he slams the door.
Back at the community centre, one dad is full of tales. He took his group of girls to Ponsonby Road fixtures SPQR and Chapel. They flogged three boxes, he says.
“A guy in a passing van gave us $20 for two packets. So we gave away a packet to a homeless guy.”
“What people are actually buying,” says the Girl Guiding literature, “goes towards providing Kiwi girls and young women with hands-on experiences that allow them to discover their potential, develop confidence and skills, participate in programmes and contribute to their communities both now and in the future – your future!”
The dad has more to recount. “We actually sold a packet to a god,” he says. “He was from, you know, that TV series, The Almighty Johnsons. He played the father. No, it’s not every day you sell to a god.”
At the end of every meeting the girls gather around in a circle, hands raised in the Guide’s three-fingered salute, symbolising the three principles of Guiding: “Search for and acknowledge God or a higher being, a girl’s duty to her country through service, and keeping the Guide laws.” And then they sing. Sweetly and softly. It’s called “Taps” and it goes like this.
“Day is done,
gone the sun.
From the hills,
from the lake,
from the skies.
All is well,
God is nigh.”
- Sunday Magazine
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