American Beat: The Cookie Crumbles

OK, it's time to separate Mallomar myth from Mallomar reality. The reality, of course, is that this popular cookie--a sublime and elusive blend of graham cracker, marshmallow and a pure dark chocolate coating--is simply not available during the summer months.

So every fall, amid the kind of hype that typically accompanies the return of the swallows to Capistrano, Nabisco rolls out the red carpet for the beloved Mallomar.

Because the chocolate would supposedly melt during shipping, Nabisco says it can only offer the Mallomar from early October through April. So every September, publicists for Nabisco wisely distribute case upon case of fresh Mallomars to editors around the country. Subsequently, media coverage of the return of the Mallomars runs the full journalistic gamut from the cliche ("They're ba-a-a-a-ck!") to the giddy ("The Mallomars are back!") to apoplectic ("They're the best cookie in the world!").

In this case, the media is the message: Every October, you--the cookie consumer--are expected to play the role of the loving, arduous suitor (and fork over close to $4 for a box). And every April, you're supposed to shed a tear at the departure of the Mallomar and promise not to see other cookies until October comes around again.

Well, frankly, I'm tired of Nabisco's chocolate shell game. To quote Shakespeare from that famous love sonnet, a cookie is not a cookie "which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove. Oh, no, it is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken! Such a cookie should always be available, in grocers near and far, gourmet or common." Sure, that last line of verse was edited out before it was published in the First Folio, but clearly The Bard (not his real name) knew a little about the pain of an absent baked good.

And, quite frankly, so do I.

This is not to say that the Mallomar is not the greatest mass-market cookie in the country. In fact, it is more than that. A Mallomar is a thing of beauty and a miracle of balance, restraint and perfection. And the fact that it disappears from shelves during warm-weather months--when other "chocolate" cookies remain--should be a cause for celebration: finally, an American food conglomerate does the right thing by using actual chocolate in a chocolate cookie. Who'da thunk it?

But Nabisco's marketing campaign still leaves a bad taste in my mouth (despite the taste of all the free Mallomars the company sent me). There's something about it that I just can't stomach. Or you might say something's eating me.

For one thing, Nabisco tells New York-area reporters that 70 percent of the cookie's sales are mysteriously rung up in and around the Big Apple. The goal is not to get the city to change its nickname to The Big Marshmallow, but to generate media hits in the media capital of the country.

But when I dug deeper, I discovered that high sales in New York are mostly due to massive distribution in New York. Nabisco is ramming Mallomars down our throats here, encouraging area grocery stores to give over whole swaths of aisle space for large Mallomar displays--space that could be devoted to Wheat Thins, Ginger Snaps or the long-neglected Royal Lunch crackers.

Nabisco says it displays Mallomars more prominently in New York because the cookie sells better in New York, but it's a chicken and egg--or, more accurately, a chocolate-and-marshmallow--thing: the more prominently a cookie is displayed, the better it sells.

"I must admit, it's very very difficult to find Mallomars outside of the northeast," said Larry Baumann, a Nabisco spokesman (and the last honest man in cookies today). "I don't know that you can even find them in Denver." What a surprise; sales are low in Denver.

All the glowing press that Nabisco receives every October really galls Little Debbie, makers of a marshmallow pie quite similar to the Mallomar, except for one important detail: It's available all year long.

"The Mallomar is an OK product, but ours is a great product," said Don Burton, senior product manager for Little Debbie, who restrained his anger over the media's wall-to-wall Mallomar coverage like a jockey holding back an overeager colt on the backstretch.

"For one thing, we've developed a shelf-stable chocolate that can be sold for 12 months of the year. And for another thing, our product has better value." A 12-ounce package of Little Debbie pies will cost you $1.09, while 8 ounces of Mallomars can cost $3.99. I've got a headache, so you do the math.

Of course, it's easy to sell a less-expensive product when you're using a chocolate whose principal ingredient is vegetable oil instead of chocolate.

The Nabisco's publicity machine bears fruit for the Mallomar in other ways, too. The cookie has so saturated the airwaves that the pastry chef at snooty Chanterelle restaurant--who doesn't even like Mallomars--is about to roll out her own version.

"I've heard so much about the Mallomar that this year, I'm going to make an upscale version of it as a petit-four," said Kate Zuckerman, the pastry chef. The Chanterelle Mallomar will feature a hazelnut cookie or shortbread base--"It's crunchier"--and a thicker chocolate coating.

And it'll be available all year long--but that's only because Chanterelle has air conditioning.

Meanwhile, the march of the Mallomar continues. Go into any supermarket in the northeast--such as the Gristede's on Broadway and 99th Street, where you would've seen me the other day--and you'll find people snapping up the yellow-wrapped treats like there's no tomorrow (because, where Mallomars are concerned, there is no tomorrow come April).

"Oh, thank God they're back!" said Bonnie Ohrnstein. "This is the best cookie in the world. I don't even buy cookies the rest of the year!"

Ohrnstein was a real person, but she might as well be on Nabisco's payroll: a few minutes later, under my relentless questioning, she admitted that she eats Stella Doro Swiss Fudge Cookies during the off-season.

There you have it: Another Mallomar myth dispelled!

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