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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Cookie empire crumbles

My friend Fred and I were walking out onto Broadway one afternoon when we were overwhelmed with the sickly sweet smell of roasted nuts. "They're never quite as good as they smell," he said. "That's what disappointment smells like to me."

Pepperidge Farm tastes like disappointment to me. Inevitably when I go into an grocery store or deli, I stand in front of the little white bags for a few minutes, fantasize about how good any of the varieties might be, let my mind wander to what the next city inspiration I'd choose for the next variety of Pepperidge Farm cookies (what would Oslo be? they could do something cool with St. Petersburg, right?), and then leave glumly because Pepperidge Farm cookies--save for the sublime Genevas--are not as good as they should be.

There was a Pepperidge Farm thrift store near the community theater rehearsal space when I was growing up. It was a weird place. It was called a thrift store because all the cookies and Goldfish were slightly past their sell-by date and thus discounted. Pepperidge Farm didn't seem so mediocre then--but even as a young Farmer I realized what a profoundly weird geographic schizophrenia the brand suffered from. It was evident in the fonts on the bags: that dinky home-style '50s font on the Sugar or Gingermen cookies looked provincial next to the cosmopolitan italics on the European hotspots chocolate varieties. The fantasy cities, which Margaret Rudkin developed in the 1950s after trips to Europe, were a genius marketing ploy; I still choose my varieties on the idea of the city--rather than which variety of chocolate or fruit tart. Here's the list, partly from the Pepperidge Farm web site and partly from Wikipedia and my own reconstruction:

Bordeaux (sugar cookies)
Brussels (plain and mint variety)
Chantilly (raspberry tarts with powdered sugar)
Geneva (dark chocolate pecan and peppermint variety)
Lido (shortbread and chocolate sandwiches)
Lisbon (chocolate-dipped chocolate chip cookies--the Wikipedia entry says these are orange cookies dipped in chocolate, but I haven't had those)
Marbella (chocolate cappucino, chocolate toffee)
Milano (plain, amaretto, double chocolate, french vanilla, milk chocolate, mint, orange, raspberry)
Montieri (peach, apple caramel, raspberry)
Rialto (chocolate amaretto, chocolate raspberry)
Seville (chocolate chip)
Tahiti (chocolate coconut)
Verona (apricot raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, apple caramel)

I didn't include the homestyle cookies on this list because they're less interesting. Someone brought a couple of bags of Chessmen to a party once, and I spent the evening silently judging him: Chessmen are the most boring Pepperidge Farm cookies ever. You know what? I was really judging myself. I had brought Milanos.

The Wikipedia entry lists some discontinued brands/ forgotten international hotspots such as Cardiff (helpfully described as "small wafers"), Melbourne (almond cookies), Naples (the original Milano cookie: these were packed as oval cookies with a layer of dark chocolate, but they stuck together in the package and Milanos were born), Orleans (chocolate wafers). I like the look back to Cardiff.

The Farm then turned its attention stateside to vacation getaways:

Chesapeake (dark chocolate chunk pecan)
Nantucket (dark chocolate chunk)
Sausalito (milk chocolate chunk macadamia)
Santa Cruz (oatmeal raisin)
Tahoe (white chocolate macadamia)

Maybe they're out of add-ins for these cookies--and the soft-baked varieties of them are gross--but I have big hopes for a Puget Sound cookie or a Galveston...

You can even take the "what kind of cookie are you today?" quiz. Today, I am Sausalito! Although I may want to try Geneva--believe me, I have! (The questions on this quiz are funny--to test out what kind of cookie you are, you also have to answer what kind of music you like and whether you'd prefer Ethiopian, French, or Italian food.)

I must say, I'm less enamored of the recent Pepperidge Farm colonies in Marbella (is that even a city, or just an evocation of something exotic?) and Rialto. I tried the Montieri peach variety and didn't taste much fruit; I'm afraid of the blueberry variety of Veronas since blueberry filling doesn't really taste like blueberries. Same with apple caramel.

Yet sometimes on Wednesday nights I return to the Pepperidge Farm Golden Orchard--home of the Chantilly, two different varieties of Verona, the Pirouette, and several other golden cookies without geographic titles. Sometimes Tyra Banks is there, or Pete Coors, and everything is... pretty good.

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Blogger SPG on Wed Mar 05, 05:04:00 PM:
Can we have an international P-Farm party where everyone brings a different (assigned) variety?

...which will end is us complaining about how they're just not very good. Then we go out for banana pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine.
Blogger Jeff'y on Wed Mar 05, 05:21:00 PM:
Sheryl and I went shopping with my mom this past weekend at one of the big suburban supermarkets that are found in southern Brooklyn (Stop & Shop on Ave Y). One of the checkout displays was for Pepperidge Farm scented candles, which, don't get too excited about that. There were a few varieties named after the corresponding cookie inspirations. I forget which flavors we smelled, but they were uniformly awful--even more so than you'd imagine.

The cookies only seem to exist at that one supermarket and in a picture at the very bottom of this apparently ridiculous AOL Journal entry. So good luck finding them, if you were actually interested.
Blogger Alice on Wed Mar 05, 07:03:00 PM:
That picture is of Chessmen-scented candles. Gross! I can't think of any that I'd think would make good scented candles, though.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Mar 05, 08:17:00 PM:
I also judge people who bring boring Farm cookies. I'm certainly a Brussels girl. FYI MArbella is a place. It's totally awesome there. Traditional white city on the Mediterranean shore. I spent a day with Brian reading on the beach under palm umbrellas on amazing lounge chairs reading Pride and Prejudice. It was perhaps the best day of my life.
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 07, 01:31:00 AM:
I agree that Chessmen are a disappointment. They should be more shortbready, like Girl Scout shortbreak cookies, which are divine dipped in coffee.

As for Milano, Alice has no excuse. Somehow when you lop off half the Milano and add a couple nuts, the resulting Geneva is ten times better for it.

You have to credit Pepperidge Farm for making some of the best products you can reliably get at a supermarket (nothing disappears faster than Sausalitos served for dessert), along with Stoned Wheat Thins, Boursin cheese, Thomas's English muffins, Tostitos, Utz Sour Cream and Onion chips, Juicy Juice, and Vlasic kosher dill pickles. I still haven't found a reliably great, widely available salsa, root beer, ramen, or pasta sauce.
Blogger Katy on Fri Mar 07, 10:53:00 AM:
We had one of those Pepperidge Farm factory stores near us, too. It was on Route 111 in Hauppauge near Hauppauge High School, I'm pretty sure. We used to go there to buy Goldfish, which I still love (I have some sitting in a ziplock bag on my desk right now).

Why would someone name a cookie after Cardiff?
Blogger Sophia on Fri Mar 07, 11:35:00 AM:
You're feeling calm and mellow, and you're not in the mood for surprises. The Chessmen® is just what you're looking for: a classic butter cookie that's comforting and delicious, with the flavor you know and love.

huh. guess im boring and unsatisfying today.
Blogger Alice on Fri Mar 07, 02:41:00 PM:
I will now start pronouncing Marbella correctly.

Who knew Chessmen could be comforting and polarizing at the same time? The Girl Scout version of shortbread is indeed far superior, but every time I eat any variety of Girl Scout cookies, I'm a little unsure that anything should taste that good.

Aren't the questions on the Pepperidge Farm quiz strange? Does alternative rock still exist as a viable category with which one could determine... one's cookie identity? (And Sophia, if you're the person who I think you may be--and I could be wrong--did I not listen to my first alternative rock song with you when we were in elementary school?)
Blogger Sophia on Fri Mar 07, 05:21:00 PM:
Yes, I would be that Sophia. :)

ahh...alternative rock. What a lovely phase that was! You would be correct old friend. As to what song it was...I couldn't tell you that, but im sure it was mindblowing at the time.

ps. I check your site often. Its good to know you are alive and well, although I never had any dobuts. If i ever make it up to New York, you better buy me some coffee!
Blogger Ben on Fri Mar 07, 05:23:00 PM:
Dobuts are also good to dip in coffee.