Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guerrilla cookie background

Information about the Quercus Alba/Ted Odell guerrilla cookie, which was sold in Madison from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s can be found in several blogs and newspaper/magazine articles. Some of these are linked below. I’ve compiled the information here in the hopes that knowledgeable readers will come forth to correct or add information, recollections, and observations.

I’m also hoping that anyone associated with the cookie’s production, such as anyone who worked in the bakery, supplied the bakery, or inspected the bakery, might share anything they remember. Most of all (please, dear god), I’m hoping someone saved a copy of the label with the ingredients list and will share it here.

In a Doonesbury cartoon from the early 1970s, Zonker observed, “Even revolutionaries like chocolate chip cookies.” If Doonesbury's creator Garry Trudeau had attended college in Madison instead of New Haven, that line would have been about guerrilla cookies.

Guerrilla cookies were a dietary staple among UW-Madison campus denizens from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Campus-area co-ops and grocery stores sold the flat, lumpy cookies by the dozen, stacked like rice cakes in tubular bags. Some remember a white paper label tucked inside each bag with a blue-ink line drawing of some sort of a bucolic scene, perhaps a cow and a sunrise. In food co-ops and in the student unions, the cookies were sold individually.

There was nothing warlike about the guerrilla cookie. Nevertheless, the name suited: It was easy to imagine this tightly packed, portable nutrition as sustenance for a life on the run.

The guerrilla cookie did not become a Madison legend simply because it traveled well in a backpack. Packed with grains, nuts, and seeds, one or two made a decent meal, particularly when paired with a container of yogurt or an apple. The dense cookie’s abundant moisture gave it a slight sheen and caused the cookies to cling together in the package. With edges that sometimes got a bit crispy, the cookie provided tender resistance upon first bite and meaty substance to chew on.

The guerrilla cookie was produced in the small Quercus Alba bakery, which may have been for a time in the kitchen of the Brooks Street YMCA and was later in the downstairs rear part of 301 South Bedford Street. The baker was Ted Odell, who is reported to be still living in Wisconsin. On one blog, Snoqueen, a reader who owned a neon shop above the bakery, commented that Odell “was a little hard to talk to and most people knew to leave him alone.”

History has not been kind to Odell, likely because he has not been kind to anyone seeking the recipe. Odell has maintained a stubborn stance that he and only he possesses the recipe and that he will never divulge it. Odell once wrote to the UW alumnae magazine, On Wisconsin:
As their true and only creator (popular journalism to the contrary notwithstanding), I testify under oath: they came into existence and were made in the service of certain principles. To release them into the public domain advantages those who exploit them contrary to principles. (Consumerism is an example of what these principles are not).
More recently, Glen Chism, a Wisconsin baker, has contacted Odell. Chism reported,
We will never get a Guerrilla Cookie recipe from Mr. Odell. My attempts at communicating with him have resulted in a series of bizarre letters, complete with interesting pieces of sheet music and sort of disturbing drawings. As for the cookie, ...he was willing to share that he stopped selling the cookie because it had become a symbol of what is most wrong with our world.
Chism wrote that Odell considers the cookie “a bad thing that should not be produced in the world,” and that Odell said that there are no physical copies of the recipe and it will die with him.

The first high-profile attempt to recreate the guerrilla was undertaken in 2000, when Nature's Bakery on Williamson Street in Madison held a contest. This contest produced the Guerrilla 2000 cookie (G2K), which is still sold by the bakery. The cookie is more homage than imitation, and the bakery does not claim that there is any direct connection. The homage cookie contains several ingredients that recall the nuts-and-seeds chewiness of the original: unsulfured coconut, walnuts, and sunflower seeds. However, it is taller than the original and lacks the moistness. Finally, it contains peanut butter and chocolate chips, which were not in the original.

The second well-known attempt to recreate the guerrilla cookie came about in 2003 or 2004. A former UW student, Mary McDowell, provided a recipe to Chism, who was at that time with the Mifflin Street Co-op, saying that she wanted to help with the co-op’s financial difficulties by enabling them to re-introduce the guerrilla cookie. McDowell said that her recipe was close to the recipe that she had shared with Ted Odell shortly before he began production.

The account that McDowell provided at this time introduced the idea that one important ingredient might have been Tigers Milk beverage powder. She told George Hesselberg of the Wisconsin State Journal that she “cut a recipe from the back of a Tiger's Milk box and modified it.” She said she then gave the recipe to Odell, who made further alterations, including the addition of cracked wheat, before he started selling his cookies. Tiger’s Milk beverage powder is no longer manufactured, and the Schiff Company has declined others' requests for an ingredients list. (I’ve contacted them and have not yet heard back.)

Hesselberg published the list of the ingredients in MacDowell’s recipe, which did not include Tiger’s Milk. Some ingredients could easily have been in the original: rolled oats, turbinado sugar, dry milk, wheat bran, almonds, sunflower seeds, cracked wheat, brewer's yeast, molasses, and cinnamon. However, other ingredients in her recipe are unlikely. No one who knew the original cookie has mentioned soy nuts, soy grits, or almond butter among the ingredients they remember. Consensus is that the original did not contain peanut butter, and finally, canola oil did not exist in the late 1960s. Hesselberg's article quoted two women who had tasted the MacDowell recipe. They said they could taste peanut butter and described the cookie as ‘slightly dry,’ neither of which describes the original guerrilla cookie.

Some recall that Odell adjusted the recipe over time. One former staff member of a local grocery, Claire, commented:
From 1980 until 1985, I worked at Whole Earth on East Johnson Street and we sold the cookies, both individually and in bags. There was a great uproar when he changed the recipe: he substituted malt syrup for either the sugar or the honey. Many of us swore we'd never eat the cookies again because the taste was so altered. But we ate them anyway.
In 2008, knowing none of this yet, I went on the Internet looking for a guerrilla-cookie recipe. I found a kindred spirit in Lindy, of the Lindy’s Toast blog, who in February 2007 had written:
It is my firm belief that Recipes are for The People! (If Odell gave it to me,) I'd feel honor bound to liberate that recipe, and won't be pretending otherwise. I don't like the whole concept of hoarded secret recipes, and firmly believe that the sharing and preparing of real food is an important human link. 
I agree. Begging or waiting passively for someone to turn over a recipe that may or may not be the real thing seems to me to be unnecessarily helpless and not at all in the guerrilla spirit. A few people with decent foodie memories and a bit of experience in the kitchen can, I am sure, recreate a recipe that is close enough to the original. So I joined in the discussion there, and when my attempted recreations got good enough to share, I started this blog.

The tag line on the blog comes from a charming worker at Willy Street Coop who was helping me find ingredients. He was too young even to have heard of the cookie, so I described it to him and acknowledged we would never know for certain how close we come with these re-creation efforts. He replied, "Well, then, you'll just need to call your re-creation the 'Large Primate Cookie."

I laughed and said, "That'd work, except the original was a guerrilla cookie--like Che Guevara, revolutionary, that kind of thing. Healthy, portable, good for shoving into a backpack and staying on the go."

"Oh, I get it--because you never know when you will need to grab your cookies and run into the jungle."


  1. Hi Karen
    Those cookies look GREAT! I have never tried millet. I suppose I can break down and try to find some if you really think it's needed. I thought the chopped nuts, granola, and oatmeal gave me enough little white specks. I didn't find the molasses overpowering but a little less couldn't hurt. As far as sweetness, less or none on the honey and maybe a little less of the raw cane sugar might be in order. Got to admit that the taste looks and texture are getting pretty close to the originals though.

  2. Hi Karen,

    On behalf of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, I am checking out the history of the guerilla cookie and its social impact on the UW-Madison campus and its alumni, and was wondering if I could get five minutes of your time to hear more about you and if you have memories of the cookies and Madison in the 60s and 70s.

    Please email me at when you get this!!! Much appreciated, Wendy

  3. just got the Dane Co Farmer's Market weekly email and this week's has a picture of the label (w/ingredients) and a note that Gypsy Travelin' Market & Bakery is resurected this recipe and will be selling it at the DCFM.

  4. Great news! One of these days, someone who aspires to resurrect that cookie is going to get it right!