The old packaging I remember from the 1990s.
Another food celebration day has crept up on me. This time, it’s Oreo Day, though I would have gone with “Sandwich Cookie Day” for two reasons: a) Oreos aren’t the only sandwich cookies with a creamy center out there (especially since Nabisco is doing all it can to make Oreos different), and b) you know some overly politically-correct activist is going to get on his or her soapbox and declare that the name is racist. For those who don’t know, “Oreo” is a derogatory name for a black person who “acts white” (read: doesn’t listen to rap, has a good credit rating, isn’t on welfare, has a respectable job, etc). Other variations of this include the “banana” (an Asian who acts white), a coconut (a Hispanic or black person who doesn’t have African roots [like a Brazilian, a Jamaican, or someone from India] who acts white), and a “backwards Oreo” (a white person who acts black). While being called an “Oreo” may be a compliment (because, hey, you don’t follow the stereotypes of your race and cookies are always good), it does have the sting of “You should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to The White Man, the same White Man that enslaved your ancestors and took their sweet time giving us the same rights they have, and still keep us down today, albeit in more underhanded ways, never mind that we’re keeping ourselves down and, therefore, making ourselves look bad.” I guess whoever came up with these was only racist when he or she was hungry and, rather than get something to eat, decided to fan the flames of hatred a little more.
I can’t think of a time when Oreo cookies weren’t part of my life. It’s always been in my pantry, whether it’s the real deal or some discount store knock-off. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a discount store Oreo knock-off in my pantry, called Benton’s Chocolate Sandwich cookies waiting to be devoured by everyone in my family within the span of, oh, say, five days. And even when I couldn’t have the cookie, I’ve always had a dessert with Oreos in it (or flavored like a chocolate sandwich cookie), be it ice cream, cake, pie, or pudding. Oreo cookies are a lot like some of the cartoons I watched when I was younger: kids love them and are the main demographic, but the periphery demographic is mostly adults.
The competition: 1908-2001, with a brief comeback in 2008
Oreos were created in 1912 (making them a little over 100 years old, 102 to be exact) as a competitor to Hydrox Cookies, which, sadly, aren’t around anymore due to mergers, rebranding, and Oreo kicking Hydrox’s butt in sales. The last time Hydrox were seen was when they were sold as part of the product’s 100th birthday in 2008. Compared to Oreos, Hydrox’s filling wasn’t overly sweet, it was kosher/halal (Oreo’s original recipe had lard in it, and, as Jewish and Muslim dietary laws will tell you, pork products are verboten, as pigs are seen as dirty, disease-ridden scavengers), and Hydrox’s chocolate wafer could stand its own when being dunked in milk.
When Oreo first started, it was known as the “Oreo Biscuit” (which is somewhat true, as a “biscuit” is what Americans and Canadians call a “cookie” and not a quick bread that’s used in a sausage sandwich for breakfast and served alongside chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, and the product was originally made for British people in mind). It was developed and produced by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) in New York City (Chelsea area) on Ninth and 15th (which is known as “Oreo Way”). The original packaging was in novelty cans with clear glass tops and they sold for 25 cents a pound. Keep in mind that $.25 a pound in 1912 would be $5.86 today when adjusted for inflation, which is how much Oreos are priced in some of the mom-and-pop delis and kwik-e-marts I’ve been to. Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve seen them go anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99 — minus tax, of course. As for the original packaging, Nabisco probably switched over to the “We Three Sleeves” packaging to keep the prices down and for freshness reasons, though I’ll bet you there’s a farmer’s market out there that has homemade, heart-smart, gluten-free, vegan Oreos in a decorative can (made of recycled materials, because that’s how the fair-food, go-green crowd works) that’s probably somewhere between $1.50 to $2.50 a pound (maybe more).
As mentioned before, the filling to the Oreo cookie had lard (pork fat) in it, making it unsuitable for eating if you were Jewish, Muslim, or just didn’t like pork and pork byproducts (and, unlike today, people didn’t really care if you were any religion other than Protestant or some kind of Baptist or Anglican Christian. Even Catholics were ragged on because they had a pope as their conduit to God and Protestants didn’t…or, if you want to put a modern perspective to it, maybe Protestants knew that Catholic priests did unsavory things to children, but it wasn’t a major concern until the 1990s, the 2000s, and now). Of course, to cover it up, they used vanilla and sugar. There was even a lemon-flavored cream filling in the 1920s, but has since been discontinued (though if you ever go to Japan or to some American markets, you will find lemon cream Oreo cookies, albeit with the Golden Oreo wafers instead of the chocolate ones. Lemon and chocolate don’t really make a good flavor profile, which is probably why it was discontinued).
Sam “Mr. Oreo” Porcello (exact day and month unknown, but the birth year is somewhere between 1935 and 1936 – died May 12, 2012) was a food scientist from New Jersey credited for devising the modern Oreo cookie filling, in which the lard is replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (still not healthy, but slightly better than lard). It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the Oreo would switch over to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil in an effort to rid food of trans fats (which, despite what you’ve heard or read, doesn’t affect the flavor, so those episodes of American Dad (“Live and Let Fry,” season four, episode 11) and King of the Hill (“Trans-Fascism,” season 12, episode 11) where Stan Smith and Hank Hill respectively fight back against the new “no foods with trans fats” laws because the no trans fats foods lack flavor is a fallacy.
The etymology behind “Oreo” is a mystery. Some say it’s partially from the French word “or,” which isn’t a conjunction used to denote a decision or choice in this case (in French, that word is “ou,” without the left-leaning accent. If it’s spelled with the left-leaning accent [où], then it’s the French word, “where,” as in “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”). In this case, “or” in French means “gold,” possibly meaning that this cookie is the gold standard. Another theory is that “Oreo” is from the Greek word “όμορφο,” meaning “beautiful, nice, or well-done” (Quick word: I don’t know Greek all that well, except for the alphabet, and that was back in sixth grade when I was taught about the Greek and Roman Empires and from watching TV shows and movies about college frat and sorority houses getting into trouble that would get real-life frats and sorority members hurt, expelled, arrested, shut down, put on academic probation, or, worst case scenario, deported. I got the word off Google Translate). A final, and simpler, theory is that the name was made up by the company and it was chosen because it was easier to pronounce and remember.
Through the years, Oreo has become so much more than a chocolate sandwich cookie. Its filling has been everything from lemon to mint to chocolate to peanut butter — heck, if you go to China and Japan, you can get green tea filling in your Oreo, while other countries, like Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have blueberry ice cream filling, orange ice cream filling, strawberry filling, and dulce de leche (a milk-based confection that’s common as muck in the Hispanic world, particularly in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the South American countries that have Spanish as an official language. Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname are the only ones that don’t) filling. There’s been Oreo pies, cheesecakes, regular cakes, brownies, ice cream, and frozen dessert dishes. The wafers, when ground up into crumbs, have been molded into pie crusts (or edible dirt, if it’s Halloween and you want to make a food-based scale model of a cemetery. Someone in my high school senior class did that, and it was amazing) and used as mixin’s for yogurt and ice cream. Basically, if something on the dessert menu says “Cookies and Cream [something],” you can bet that Oreos or an Oreo-inspired chocolate sandwich cookie (whether pre-made or homemade) are involved.
As part of Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day, I’m going to leave you with a fool-proof recipe for how to make your own Oreo cookies (or, at the very least, the wafers, so you can use them for desserts or just eat that part without worrying about the creamy center). “You can make your own Oreos?” you ask incredulously. Yes, you can. It may seem hard, as the dark chocolate wafers are easy to overbake (their color obscures browned edging, which is an indicator of doneness in most cookie recipes) and the filling is very easy to foul up (coming out either too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had enough Oreos and no-brand sandwich cookies to know the difference), but this recipe fixes those mistakes.
The cookie/wafer part is prepared the same way as vanilla icebox cookies, only you substitute part of the flour for Dutch process cocoa (or a mix of black cocoa — which can only be found online or at gourmet grocery stores — and Dutch process cocoa), though you don’t have to bother with the cocoa powder if you’re making mock Golden Oreos. As for the filling, it’s a simple blend of confectioner’s sugar, water, vanilla extract (for best results, try and find clear vanilla extract, as that makes it as white as the actual Oreo filling), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. You don’t need lard or hydrogenated oil for it.
So break out the milk (doesn’t matter what kind. I had my Benton Sandwich cookies with Almond Vanilla Milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, but everyone else in my family is and I’m open to trying new milks, like when I tried goat’s milk with spiced tea at Three Stone Hearth) and have a happy Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day with this copycat recipe:
Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
Black cocoa (found in specialty shops or online) is what gives these cookies their distinctive dark color and deep flavor; if you can’t find it, substitute additional Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Also, if you can find it, clear vanilla extract will make a bright white–colored filling.
2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup black cocoa powder
¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso or instant coffee
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) all-purpose flour
4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2½ tablespoons water
FOR THE COOKIES:
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter, then combine with the cocoa and espresso powders in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool, about 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, beat the cooled cocoa mixture, remaining 16 tablespoons butter, granulated sugar, and salt together using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour in 3 batches, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until the dough forms a cohesive ball, about 10 seconds.
Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 6-inch log, about 2 inches thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Slice the dough into ⅛-inch-thick cookies. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart.
Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown and firm, 10 to 12 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.
Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough using freshly lined baking sheets.
FOR THE FILLING: In a large bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar and salt together with an electric mixer on low speed, slowly adding the vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the water until the filling is uniform and malleable, about 1 minute. If the filling is dry and crumbly, beat in the remaining ½ tablespoon water. Transfer the filling to a clean counter and roll into a log slightly smaller than the cookie dough (about 1⅔ inches wide). Wrap the filling in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. 7. Slice the filling about ⅛ inch thick. Pinch each slice of filling between your fingertips to soften it, then sandwich it firmly between 2 cookies and serve.
Thanks, and happy eating!
To see where your favorite Oreo cookie type places, read this article from the food section of Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/oreo-flavors_n_4904442.html?utm_hp_ref=taste&ir=Taste