Saturday, May 1, 2010

Consider This

Got Milk??

By LC Van Savage

When you reach into that big open jar of cookies in the supermarket high up on that shelf above the baked goods that you know perfectly well are for children only, or you purchase a tire-sized chocolate chip cookie and put it into an opaque paper bag and pretend you’re bringing it home to your spouse “who’s recovering from major surgery” when you jolly well know you’ll be stuffing it quickly into your mouth as you squeal out of the parking lot, when you do those things, do you ever think about the history of the cookies you’re sneaking? You don’t? Well then folks, this is your lucky day. I’m going to write about just that subject.

I’ll concede at the outset that I’m a hopeless cookie addict. I just simply cannot resist them. I see cookies, I make sure no one’s around, and I ram a stack into my pockets and soon into my mouth as soon as I find a dark corner into which I can skulk. I know you’ll admit that cookies always taste better in mid-skulk, right? Crumbs in my pockets are my badge of derring-do and I leave them there. Oh I’ll eat cookies in front of people, but usually just one so they won’t discover my terrible dependence. But enough of my problems. I’ll check the internet for a local CA meeting to get some help. Nah. There are some things for which one wants absolutely no help.

Cookies have a fascinating history. Today they come in all flavors and they’re covered with everything wonderful, but when they were first invented around the third century BC in Rome, they were pretty awful. Hard and unleavened, they were square, bland wafers and were twice-baked they say. How do we know this? Because this info was carved into a rock or two, you know, 3rd century BC recipes and things chiseled for the ages.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, “twice baked” in the lexicon of the day, was bis coctum. Say it fast. You’ll get the idea. Twice baking just about sucked every bit of moisture out of those coctums, so they had to be dipped into wine to make them go down more easily. Foated I’d think. In no way did those folks enjoy the big, fat, chewy concoctions all good Grannies make, and even some bakeries. And even some mothers.

The Brits liked them though, although I have no way of knowing how they got those nasty hard wafers away from the Romans. Maybe in a pocketed toga, but the Brits liked them (kind of makes one understand a bit about the history of British cuisine, right?) and they called them cracken because of the crackling sound made when broken into a cup of tea, or into the mouth or even when they broke the eater’s teeth. And I don’t have to tell you what the word cracken eventually became, do I?

Then came the craving for something sweet, a problem handed down the ages, but back then sweets were a little harder to come by and besides, those crackens had an eternal shelf life, and since Tupperware and Zip Locks hadn’t been yet invented, ye olde housewife back in the BC was very happy to have those crackens last. I mean baking back then was pretty labor intensive, so if Grannie baked up a batch of cracken cookums for the kids, I suspect she’d bake up a whole huge pile, since they kept well and she could be off the hook for a couple of months. These crackens also made handy, lethal emergency missiles to chuck at marauding---well, whatever it was that marauded back in the BC.

When I was a kid, I always thought that “cookie” was named “cookie” because of the cook—the man or woman in the kitchen cranking out dozens of them a day. But no. I’m wrong. Long long long ago, around the time of Hansel and Gretel and that all-candy and gingerbread house/trail of crumbs/weight gain/oven/cannibal/witch stuff, the Dutch people provided brides and grooms with cakes for their Big Day, and the cake was called “koekje.” OK, I can’t speak Dutch but that sure looks as if it’s pronounced “coke-jee” and it’s obvious even to me that down through the millennia, koekje gradually softened down to our very own beloved word “cookie.” How it turned from wedding cake to cookie is still one of life’s great mysteries, and even after years of exhaustive research it alas, remains a cold case situation.

Let’s do a short history here of 2 favorite cookies, one store boughten, one scratch. Let’s start with a little intel on the famous Oreo. When first introduced to the public by NaBisCo (National Biscuit Company) on April 2nd, 1912, just 13 days short of the night the Titanic met that iceberg, although there’s probably no connection and there’s no documentation that the mighty ship was carrying any Oreos, but anyway, back in 1912 the cookie was originally cone shaped and named Oreo, the Greek word for hill. One Mr. Green, an exec with Nabisco, was a Greek geekazoid and very into the classics so he thought Oreo would be a kind of cool and cerebral name. But shoving that cone into a glass of milk was probably a problem so the cookie was re-designed into the sandwich form it is today. It is still an enormously popular treat and a part of American culture and most kids have always known the delicate art of licking off the white cream filling, resticking the two chocolate cookies together and replacing them into the bag. And of course, when confronted, those same wise kids deny everything and insist that “the store made a mistake.” Ah, sweet memories.

Chocolate chip cookies. We have to talk about them. I mean come on, they’re the staff of life, right? Created by one Ruth Wakefield they were named for the Toll House Inn which she and her husband ran near Whitman, Mass. Sort of an early B&B, they served food to their guests. One evening in 1937 Ruth decided to make chocolate butter cookies, so she broke up one of the bars of semi-sweet chocolate that Andrew Nestle had given her. Perhaps he was a guest. There’s no documentation about that but anyway he gave it to her. She stirred the chips into the batter and baked the cookies but they didn’t come out all chocolate as she’d hoped; they came out all chocolate chip cookies and an American tradition was born. Is there anything on earth better than a pile of warm chocolate chip cookies from the oven served with a tumbler of ice cold milk? Nope.

So go on. Indulge yourself in cookies, all kinds, as many as you can cram down in one sitting. After all, life is short, and cramming cookies is a great and mighty tradition and a kind of patriotic obligation, wouldn’t you agree?

Email LC at
See her on “incredibleMAINE”
on Saturdays at 10:30 AM on MPBN.
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