Ralph Gardner Jr.: Cookies for a pandemic

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GHENT, N.Y. — With the possible exception of toilet paper, nothing is moving faster off supermarket shelves than Oreo cookies and other junk foods, though I take strenuous exception to that term. I prefer to think of them as inspired additions to a balanced diet.

But the run on Oreos doesn't constitute breaking news at our house. We're proud examples of the trend. I was reintroduced to Oreos, a cookie I haven't consumed in earnest since childhood, by our millennial daughter who came to stay with us in March. She and her husband arrived with a car full of stuff, some of it edible some not, to tide them over for the duration. Among those items was a shiny new box of Double Stuf Oreos.

To the extent I had a prior opinion about Oreos I happen to be a traditionalist. One of the things that annoys my wife about me is that while life's profound issues, including matters involving home improvement, often go unaddressed I can muster strong emotions about commercially manufactured cookies.

I can't fully explain Oreos' popularity even though it's the world's most popular cookie. But my hunch is that some of its success lies in its proportions: it possesses the perfect ratio of cookie to creme (there's no diary products involved hence Nabisco's "creme" versus "cream" locution.) Sugar and fat obviously contribute to its addictive allure but that's insufficient to explain its exquisite balance, its harmony of details.

If anybody would have preferred the Double Stuf Oreo to the original it should have been me. Back in grammar school, in an era before Double Stuf, not to mention mint, peanut butter, chocolate marshmallow and caramel coconut Oreos, I used to eat the cream and discard the cookie.

I'm not suggesting that I denounced my daughter's preference for Double Stuf and kept my hands off her cookies — my dirty little secret is that I may prefer them, too — only that original Oreos constitute commercial cookie perfection.

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What interests me more is why people are turning to them during a pandemic? Before the virus hit my top choice commercial cookies were Nabisco Mallomars and Pepperidge Farm Milanos. Double dark chocolate Milanos, of course. While the ideal quantity of Oreos' cream filling may be open to debate — Oreos Mega Stuf sounds gross, not to mention their limited edition mastodon Most Stuf, though I know I shouldn't condemn them until I've tried them — the amount of dark chocolate in a Milano isn't. Double dark chocolate hardly suffices and I sometimes wonder whether it's really double as opposed to, say, one-and-a-half times the amount of chocolate in an original Milano. If Pepperidge Farm started marketing triple dark chocolate Milanos I'd be first to the checkout line.

I'm a cookie snob. My preference is fresh cookies purchased from finer New York City's bakeries. My pre-COVID exception was Mallomars. There are few legal sensory experiences in life superior to biting into a perfectly fresh Mallomar. Some consumers may not even be aware that it's a seasonal cookie. That's because it is highly perishable, consisting of marshmallow and graham cracker covered in authentic dark chocolate and hence not sold during the summer months.

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It's also why I haven't bought them during the pandemic. Those still on store shelves back in the spring had been manufactured months earlier. For an optimal Mallomar experience it's best to purchase them in autumn, at the start of the season.

But I still haven't addressed what makes Oreos the COVID cookie, not that I expect Nabisco to incorporate that slogan into any future marketing campaigns. It's obviously comfort food and if we can use anything at the moment it's something dependably comforting.

Dependability is another aspect of its charm. Crack open a box of Mallomars that is at anything short of peak perfection — for example, the chocolate appears chalky rather than boasting that dark rich just-off-the-conveyer-belt luster — and one can spiral into a funk. Unforced funkiness is best avoided given the current circumstances.

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Oreos seem somehow less temperamental. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing; a combination of ingredients and preservatives that guarantees it will taste just as good weeks if not months from now as it does today. But during a pandemic, when one tries to minimize one's trips to the supermarket, I'll take it.

My hunch is that Oreos' current popularity transcends even convenience and dependability. The hallmarks of comfort food include qualities such as high caloric content and simple preparation. Chicken soup, for example. Or a cheeseburger deluxe.

But perhaps the defining element is nostalgia. They evoke a time in life when things were simpler, safer, happier. During a pandemic it's not even a close call. We're in a bit of an abyss at the moment and a long way from the end of the tunnel. Apologies for the mixed metaphors. Few would argue that social distancing is an improvement over the free display of affection or that face masks make a fashion statement. But a cookie that harkens back to childhood, that guarantees not just consistent flavor but updated glossy packaging suggests that at least in some ways past and present can collaborate to create a brighter future. I've been particularly impressed by the reassuring quality of Oreos' resealable package that helps maintain freshness and comes with a convenient, clearly marked pull tab.

That's another aspect of Oreos appeal. While the recloseable zipper on beloved products such as Peanut M&M's and Raisinettes routinely flummox me and seem as likely to break as to function it's nice to know that Oreos give you one less thing to worry about.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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