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Unholy Wafers

At first Oreos were an unkosher, forbidden temptation. Then they became just another unhealthy cookie.

Marjorie Ingall
October 31, 2011
Fiona Shields/Flickr
Fiona Shields/Flickr
Fiona Shields/Flickr
Fiona Shields/Flickr

Oreo cookies were the first trayf thing I ever ate. It was the late ’70s, and I attended a Jewish day school. My mom kept a kosher home. This meant one thing: We had Hydrox. Oreos contained lard; Hydrox had some Crisco-like substance instead. Jewish mothers throughout the nation assured their kids, “They taste just like Oreos!” But we suspected we were getting the lame knockoff, the fake Izod, the discount Jordache of snacks. (As it turns out, we were wrong: Hydrox, which hit the market in 1908, were actually the real thing, and Oreos, born in 1912, were the copycat. Who knew?)

Maybe it was the kids at Nathan Bishop, the nearby public school, who showed us how much we were missing. (That is, when they weren’t throwing pennies at us.) Maybe we were seduced by the commercial that cheerfully sang, “Do you know exactly how to eat an Oreo?” The jingle became a handclapping game—like Miss Mary Mack—that rocketed around Jewish summer camps. An Oreo was a forbidden fruit, even more enticing than the one that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden.

Ah, temptation. When I was 8 or so, questions about free will, crime, and punishment started dogging me. Our color war theme at Day School was ahava (love) vs. yirah (fear). According to Maimonides, we needed to experience both states to have a meaningful relationship with God. I was on Team Ahava. Team Yirah won.

I was very attuned to yirah, having devoured the stories of God’s omnipotence and cruelty. In school, we spent a lot of time on the book of Genesis, source of the juiciest Bible stories. It’s rife with examples of God’s scariness—the expulsion from paradise, the great flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Yet we were told God loved us and had chosen us; we were supposed to obey out of love as well as out of fear. Figuring out the balance of love and fear is essential to the creation of selfhood in child-development theory, too; we begin to internalize and believe in our own moral code, acting as we do because we believe in right and wrong, not because we’re afraid of punishment or want to win a pat on the head. As I got older, I wanted to explore what I believed. I just wasn’t sure what that was. Did I want to keep kosher? What would happen if I flouted God’s law?

One afternoon, I walked to the corner store, psyching myself up with each step. I bought a packet of Oreos. I didn’t have a purse, so I hid it in my sock, as if I were a young Rosa Klebb and it was a poison-tipped knife.

I knew I was about to do something momentous and terrible. I couldn’t bring those cookies of death into my home. I seriously worried God would strike the house with lightning and take out my family.

So, I took the Oreos to the gardening shed in our yard and ducked inside. That way, if it got hit by lightning, I’d be the only one to fry. I unwrapped the package—they really did look exactly like Hydrox!—took a deep breath, and nibbled the edge of a cookie. Nothing happened. The skies stayed un-rent. The seas did not boil up. I ate half. I remember it as having a slightly smokier, deeper taste than Hydrox; the lardy center was grainier and less greasy. And I was not dead.

Three decades later, when I read The Foreskin’s Lament, by Shalom Auslander, I was gobsmacked that someone else had had the exact same experience. Auslander’s Oreo was a Slim Jim. (“Imagine that,” he writes. “A stick of meat!”) He too worried that eating trayf would trigger God’s vengeance upon him and his family. (“He’d find a way to drown me,” he thinks as he stands at the Snack Shack. “Then He’d drown my mother. She might even be dead already.”)

I didn’t turn on God completely, though. I bobbed and weaved, still unsure about how observant I wanted to be. I left the day school after 8th grade, along with almost all the other non-Orthodox kids, and went to public high school. There I was a vegetarian (it was easy to blend in with the hyper-sincere animal-rights activists) except when it came to kosher meat cooked by Mom. When I went to college I ate no meat at all, which was probably a good thing given the state of the cafeteria. And when I moved to Manhattan after graduation, I kept a veggie kitchen. But I kept only one set of dishes, and I began to eat chicken outside the home.

Meanwhile the world changed. Oreos became kosher. Joe Regenstein, professor of food science and director of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, told students in a 2008 lecture how it all went down. “It was probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher,” Regenstein said. The process took more than three years and millions of dollars, and concluded in 1997. It involved rabbis climbing into the company’s ovens (I know!), each one about 300 feet long. To meet the strictures of the Orthodox Union, the 100 or so ovens had to be manually blow-torched inside on the highest heat.

Ironically, Nabisco, which makes Oreos, replaced the lard with trans fats, which are today considered demonic obesity-engendering child-killers but in the ’90s were considered healthy, at least compared to animal fats. Eliminating the lard was a way to woo new cookie fans, both Jewish and non.

Oreos remain the canonical sandwich cookie; Kraft (which now owns Nabisco) claims that worldwide, 7.5 billion Oreos are eaten every year. The Oreo line is ever-expanding, much like the universe itself. In a flurry of inexplicable spelling and internal capitalization, Nabisco has created DoubleStuf Oreos, Fudgees, Oreo WaferStix, Big Stuf, White-Fudged-Covered Oreos, Oreo Cakesters, and the Triple Double (a layer of vanilla creme and a layer of chocolate creme pancaked between three chocolate wafers). “Our fans’ passion and enthusiasm has challenged us to raise our game,” Jessica Robinson, associate director of consumer engagement, said in an unironic statement. There are also Oreo Sippers, chocolate straws lined with creme so you can actually drink your milk through an Oreo, but they’re sold only in Canada.

While Oreo’s embrace of kashrut contributed to its juggernaut status, poor underdog Hydrox fizzled out. In 1996, Sunshine, Hydrox’s manufacturer, was bought out by Keebler. In 1999, Keebler renamed Hydrox Droxies, which sounds like a band of drunk leprechauns, and continued producing them until 2003. For Hydrox’s 100th anniversary in 2008, Kellogg’s (which had bought out Keebler in 2001—are you keeping up?) brought back Hydrox in a flurry of nostalgic ads. But by the end of the year, Hydrox had quietly disappeared from grocery shelves again.

My relationship with kashrut is still ambivalent. I married a man from Wisconsin, who would no sooner be a vegetarian than a Minnesota Vikings fan. Oreos continued to play a role in my life. In 1999, I took a job at a new TV network located at the just-gentrifying western edge of Manhattan, in an industrial building that once housed the National Biscuit Company. Yes, I worked in the original Oreo factory. In a referential bit of hipster architecture, the iron base of one of the original ovens remained embedded in the floor 10 feet from my desk.

Today my husband and I still have only one set of dishes, but I insist on buying only kosher meat. I follow my own inconsistent, semi-random rules. When Josie was not quite 3, she attended a wedding in Utica where she tasted her first pork breakfast sausage in the hotel restaurant. Over two days she ate 13 of them. I felt strangely sad but didn’t try to stop her. Maxine, on the other hand, has my palate; she doesn’t like meat at all and is essentially a vegetarian. We all love Oreos.

Which are under fire again. They’re a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the current American food system. The company’s marketing of 100-calorie packs (each containing a small handful of communion-wafer-like “thin crisps”) isn’t fooling anybody. Today’s upper-middle-class Jewish kids, if they get cookies at all, get Late July brand organic vanilla bean cookies (“sustainably harvested from a beautiful orchid”) or Newman-O’s (made with “organic cacao that comes from small farmers in the Talamanca region”). How’s a Jewish mother to decide? Newman-O’s uses certified “slavery-free” cooperatives, but Late July makes a version with “white chocolate between Endangered Animal Vanilla Cookies,” which makes it sound like they’re made of actual Sumatran rhinos. Orthorexia is the new kashrut. The attention our people once lavished on fins and scales, vein-removal, and proper bloodletting is now dedicated to finding boxes that say “antioxidant” on them. Today’s trayf is anything stuffed full of chemicals and polyunsaturated fats.

Apparently Jewish Oreo ambivalence comes in stages. First there’s the ambivalence about being denied the cookie. Then there’s the ambivalence of being allowed to eat the cookie. (As Rabbi Joshua Hammerman pointed out on his blog, assimilation is a double-edged sword. “I know that in some perverse manner my Oreo envy kept me safely at the outer edges of middle America, shielding me from total absorption into the vanilla masses. … Oreo denial was, for me, a direct extension of Egyptian slavery—it made me uncomfortable enough to feel different and different enough to feel proud.”) Now there’s the ambivalence of not wanting to buy into the trend of demonizing foodstuffs, thus feeling ambivalent about feeling ambivalent about the cookie. Sometimes you yearn for the taste of your childhood; sometimes you don’t.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.