My wife, Liz, and I had been living near Silver Spring a few months when we attended one of her good friend’s dinner parties last summer in Dupont Circle. Like many of Liz’s friends who live in or near Washington, this woman slams pretty much anything — music, people, stores — that smacks of mainstream American culture. Especially food.
Back in my native Baltimore, where I’ve lived for much of my life, Berger cookies top the guest list at dinner gatherings, ranging from picnic table crab feasts to white-linen fetes. The groom’s cake at my wedding? Berger cookies. But no one at this dinner party featuring crepes drizzled in truffle oil had ever seen a Berger, with its trademark Himalayan mound of chocolate frosting. In all fairness, until very recently, the Berger had been practically synonymous with Baltimore.
After dinner, the hostess was putting out desserts when she noticed another guest holding up the pack of Berger cookies I had brought, scanning the ingredients.
“I know,” the hostess said, “not the healthiest dessert here, riiiight?”
I should have seen this reaction coming. After all, on my first date with Liz, I presented her with a cellophane-draped box of cookies. They were a litmus test of sorts, a way of gauging if she, a lifelong resident of the D.C. area, had enough “Bawlmer” in her. She failed miserably on that front, merely scanning the ingredients before handing them back to me (though she helped make up for it with her prowess at darts).
The hostess picked up one of the Berger cookies herself. “Now that’s a bit, umm, daunting,” she said, cautiously turning it over in her fingers.
I had flashbacks of this dinner party when I discovered Berger cookies in a Giant Food store near my new home this past winter. Immediately, I wanted to buy every pack and take them home, where they would always, always be duly appreciated. Soon after, I discovered that Bergers have been penetrating the D.C. market, mostly through Giant stores, over the past year or so. Beginning this summer, they’ll start cropping up at Safeways. (Bergers have appeared on shelves in some small area shops and delis for a few years.)
Why the recent southward migration?
“Because there’s a lot of money down there,” says Berger owner Charles DeBaufre Jr. “And it’s close enough that these gas prices won’t kill me.”
While I don’t begrudge DeBaufre the chance to make a buck, I do worry if Washington can ever fully appreciate the Berger cookie. After all, this is the same city that earned top honors as healthiest in the country, three years running, in the annual American Fitness Index. And it’s the same city that the legendary French bakery Paul (the same Paul that bakes some of its rustic breads for seven hours) fingered to open its flagship American bakery. Is this cosmopolitan region really ready to embrace a cookie that admittedly looks as if its fudge creme topping was slapped on by 5-year-olds hopped up on Mountain Dew?
Perhaps what Washingtonians need to appreciate this iconic confection is proper entree, a primer of sorts.
Lesson One: Don’t fear the fudge
Many people pass off the Berger cookie as kissing cousin to the New York deli classic Black and White. Both desserts aredome-shaped, cakey cookies with icing covering their inverted, flattened bottoms. But any familial relations between these two treats begin and end with the unfrosted cookie, which, in both cases has the mouth feel and texture of a vanilla wafer crossed with sponge cake. For one thing, the cookie in the Black and White — which outsells Bergers by 50 percent in local Giant stores, according to sales figures — gets equal billing. When you bite into the Black and White, you’re tasting cookie as much as you are the thin, symmetrical veneer of chocolate and vanilla icing. Not so with the Berger cookie. “A chocolate delivery vehicle” is how one food blogger refers to the cookie half of the Berger.
Few other cookies out there have built their reputation on just one appealing feature. Bloggers who have carefully tried to replicate the Berger insist that the slightly grainy, ganache-dense frosting made with fudge measures a good half-inch. “Here’s the thing about Bergers,” says Duff Goldman, the high-profile owner of Baltimore’s renowned bakery Charm City Cakes and star of the Food Network’s past hit show “Ace of Cakes.” “It’s all about the ratio. ... The cookie’s, like, 96 percent frosting.”
There’s more truth beneath Goldman’s hyperbole than one might think. The cookie itself is wider than its spotlight-grabbing fudgy sidekick. But the sheer girth of frosting so commands attention that it’s difficult to focus on anything else. The intensity of this mound of chocolate as thick as Play-Doh has most often elicited these words in the blogosphere: “addictive” and “crack.” Perhaps nowhere is this ensnaring effect of Bergers better translated than on the Web site for King Arthur Flour, the Vermont-based company that produces some of the most highly touted flours and baking classes in the culinary world. A fan of King Arthur’s Berger recipe, shared on the site’s Baking Banter blog, commented, “I have SEVERELY restricted my eating habits to not include really any sweets.” Berger cookies excepted. To satiate her desire while sticking to her diet, she decided to cut each Berger cookie in the box into quarters. “I made [Fridays] my day to have just one slice of the cookie. … By the time I [finish the box] it would be 12 months from now.”
Lesson Two: Cookie as metaphor
Critics of the cookie bemoan its buxom excess, its ingredients — which include hydrogenated oils, margarine and corn syrup — and its packaged “Hostess” taste, as one detractor described it. But all of this misses the point. A Berger cookie has to be approached like a Natty Boh beer, another iconic delicacy long associated with Baltimore that has as much body and flavor as Budweiser.
In other words, the deeply rooted sense of place embodied in the Berger trumps its shortcomings. That regional flavor is one of the reasons that King Arthur Flour blogger PJ Hamel re-created the recipe twice on the company’s highly popular recipe page. “I liked that this cookie is not only specific to a city but to one bakery.”
It’s this localism that arouses such intense fealty to Bergers. David Derewicz can relate. The manager of the Prime Rib Restaurant in Baltimore says that after Hurricane Irene hit last summer, he went to “no less than 10 different stores in search of Bergers” for his wife. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, Derewicz was quoted: “When we couldn’t locate them anywhere, we thought the plant might be closing. … I can truly say we were very concerned. Isn’t it hilarious to feel that way about a cookie?”
More than most people in Baltimore, Rob Kasper brings a healthy critical eye to this cookie. “Is this the highest-quality or best-tasting chocolate topping or cookie out there? Of course not,” says Kasper, who wrote the “Happy Eater” column for 33 years in the Sun. The author of a forthcoming book about the history of Baltimore’s breweries adds, “But that’s not why many people eat this cookie.” Kasper likens the Berger frosting — which sometimes develops a thin, crusty coating when it becomes stale — to a “chocolate helmet.” “It’s the protective proletariat covering which unapologetically says, ‘This is who I am. This is where I live.’ ” To a city where blue-collar culture and ethos mesh with a thriving underground music scene, this “chocolate helmet” means a cookie with little patience for restraint for restraint’s sake.
The hand-dipped Berger is the anti-Black and White cookie; it thumbs its frosting-caked nose at such aesthetic pleasantries as symmetry and consistency. It’s not unusual to find at least one cookie in a pack where some of the frosting failed to hit its mark. That said, the next cookie might feel as if it weighs half of the one-pound pack. “Bergers are a vestige of large portions at a reasonable price,” Kasper observes. Actually, Bergers are more of a back-to-the-future commodity, insists Frederick Kaufman, the food historian whose book “A Short History of the American Stomach” critically chronicles the politics, psychology and sociology behind our appetites.
“Foods like these are the next stage in food consciousness,” he says. “We’re moving beyond an elitist foodie movement into a more democratic element.” He adds that people are starting to place “more value in local manufacturing and down-and-dirty culture.”
Lesson Three: Kitsch has nothing to do with it
Little is known about the namesakes of the eponymous Berger cookie. We do know that German emigre Henry Berger opened up shop in Baltimore in 1835. No one knows for certain when the present incarnation of the Berger cookie first appeared; local lore, still peddled in newspapers and on blogs, has it that Henry and his brother George brought the recipe from the Old Country. This would mean that the Berger has been baked for 177 years. Alas, that just isn’t so. Cookie cookbook author, historian and blogger Nancy Baggett says that, based on her four years of research in Germany, “recipes for cookies with chocolate in or on them … don’t appear until the very late 19th or early 20th centuries,” after it became widely manufactured and more affordable.
This much, however, is indisputable: Today the cookie occupies a seat in Baltimore’s gastronomic pantheon alongside Old Bay seasoning, blue crabs and crab cakes. The Olympian dubbed “chocolate creme” on its package is baked in an unremarkable building in a part of the city rife with alfresco drug deals and boarded-up rowhouses. Talk about down-and-dirty. DeBaufre moved the bakery to its present location in Cherry Hill in 1999 after leaving an equally depressed part of town.
Every day, 23,000 Berger cookies are created with one mixer in a spartan room the size of a small elementary school cafeteria. The cracked concrete floor is littered with broken cookies and so many random streaks of dried chocolate that it looks as if Jackson Pollockhad been turned loose with a pail of frosting and a brush. The signature cookie accounts for 98 percent of the bakery’s $2.5 million annual sales.
Since taking over in 1994, DeBaufre has made precious few changes to the business his father and uncle purchased in 1969. He says that the cookie hasn’t changed in appearance since at least the mid-1950s (although it no longer contains butter and shortening) and that the retro-looking brown box bearing the name “Bergers” hasn’t changed since 1970. (It had been red.) When confronted with the fact that the company’s Web site and most Baltimoreans refer to the dessert as a “Berger cookie” sans the “s” on the box, DeBaufre nodded in agreement. So, why doesn’t he change the name on the box? For one thing, there’s the cachet of name recognition in a small city. But there’s another reason, too, and it has nothing to do with the charming kitsch factor that so many customers like to attribute to this brand. “Are you kidding?” DeBaufre responded. “I’m not paying some marketing consultant to redesign that package.”
The 59-year-old who worked as a roofer before joining the family business in 1977 has a working-class sense of thrift. Perhaps this is the reason that DeBaufre balked when producers of the CBS show “The Talk” asked him to ship Bergers because they wanted to surprise Baltimore-bred Josh Charles of the network’s hit show “The Good Wife” with a platter of them for his 40th birthday. “Tell you what,” DeBaufre told them, on the verge of finally landing the kind of national recognition he could never afford, “I’ll foot the bill for the cookies. But you pay for shipping.”
Finally, Lesson Four: How to eat the Berger
The most popular way to eat Berger cookies in Baltimore is from the freezer. There’s just something so deeply gratifying — empowering even — about experiencing the fudge creme frosting in this altered state. It’s enough to enjoy a Berger at room temperature, but to have the option of frozen? Well, that’s a degree of luxury that aristocrats understand.
Here are other tried-and-true methods for enjoying the Berger:
Ever since childhood, David Derewicz has first carved a center line down each cookie with his top incisors, affecting a mouth-watering symmetry. He says that he then nibbles around the outside edges. His wife spoons the frosting off her cookies, microwaves it and then dollops it onto ice cream, eating the wafer naked. Steven Raichlen’s family took another tack popular with Baltimoreans. Growing up, the prolific cookbook author and host of PBS cooking show “Primal Grill” ate Bergers “horizontally.” “We always ate the chocolate first and sometimes even discarded the cookie.”
The vote for the most unflinching technique goes to Jackie Watts, editor of the Baltimore Guide newspaper. Watts writes on the King Arthur Flour blog that “some women drown their sorrows in whiskey but in Baltimore a bag of Bergers will usually do — unless he’s a real lying cheating sonofagun, at which point we do Bourbon and Bergers and call in sick to work the next day.”
Washingtonians and Northern Virginians might want to try Watts’s tack, but start with the bourbon first. That way, when the overwhelming compulsion hits them to double-check the Berger ingredients, they won’t be able to read them.
Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is working on a memoir. To comment on this story, send e-mail to email@example.com.