Monday, April 30, 2012

The Fellowship of the Recipe

I've never met guerrilla cookie inventor Ted Odell, but I've heard he no longer thinks fondly of his creation. He's been quoted as saying the guerrilla-cookie recipe is evil and needs to be kept out of this world. That sounded crazy to me when I first heard it. But I came away from last night's Wisconsin Alumni Association's event, Madison's Main Course: Quintessential Cuisine, Past and Present, thinking of Gollum and Precious, and wondering whether Odell knows something I don't.

At this entertaining event, the Alumni Association served up treats remembered fondly by alumni, including Memorial Union's fudge-bottom pie; Babcock Hall ice cream; La Brioche bakery's Morning Buns; Paisan's Porta Bella salad; and the Plaza Tavern's burger with Plaza sauce. All were certifiably genuine. The guerrilla cookie was the only item surrounded by mystery and debate.

Carl Korz, Director of Dining Services for the Memorial Union, has been using his professional culinary skills and substantial campus connections to try to recreate the guerrilla. He brought two attempts to the event. They were good but not much closer to the original than other things we've tried--which actually is kind of close. Carl has made good progress with the taste. His professional skills allow him to be more confident with spices than I am. But the texture of both samples I tried was cakier and drier than the original guerrilla, which was very dense and moist.

In the genuine guerrilla spirit, Carl is sharing everything he knows. He has posted his recipe on the Wisconsin Alumni Association website. With his culinary training and experience, he was able to explain why I might have rejected soy flour, brewer's yeast or nutmeg as not tasting right, even though they might have been in the guerrilla cookie. Tastes interact, so if I didn't have the right other ingredients in those batches, they would have tasted wrong.

Like Gandalf bringing ancient wisdom, Martha Fish, Carl's aunt, is also willing to share. She's a UW alum who saved ephemera in her recipe box--including an actual insert from a bag of guerrilla cookies!!! Carl was handing out photocopies. I photoshopped it onto a picture of my cookies, below.

That label presents a few puzzles. Carl tracked down an unsuccessful patent application Odell submitted, which indicated that Odell lived in Oregon. This could explain why the label does not identify Madison as the location of the bakery.

The order of the ingredients, which is supposed to be by volume, is a problem. The cookies would have been inedible if they contained more brewer's yeast than sugar, eggs, or oil. So it's obvious the label tells us nothing about proportions.

Another puzzle is the absence of anything that would provide the white dots we all remember. It is not oatmeal pieces that we are now remembering as white dots; even  undergraduates know what oatmeal looks like.

While I was delighted as Carl shared his expertise, enthusiasm, and theories, I also felt an occasional twinge of sadness for him. Like former Mifflin Street Co-op baker Glen Chism before him, Carl has now been drawn into a fellowship questing for something he has never even seen. I'm grateful for that sort of professional dedication, but how frustrating must that be?

My other interesting conversation was with a fellow cookie-quester whom I'll call Frodo. (He doesn't want his real name publicized.) He believes he has succeeded in reverse-engineering the guerrilla cookie. Possessing that recipe is weighing very heavily on him. Several times during our conversation I felt I was in the presence of a man who, if he were to reveal his secret to the wrong person, would soon hear the thunder of Ring Wraiths drawing near.

Among other things, Frodo believes Odell's eventual social withdrawal was caused at least in part by being hounded by people trying to steal his recipe, and that Odell likely lied about the ingredients in order to protect his secret. Frodo doesn't want to risk being hounded or having to lie, but feels that his recipe is too precious to be shared in a way that would enable its use by someone who might not do the right thing. He is getting advice from friends and relatives, but hasn't yet figured out what to do with his discovery. It's a hard decision, and I hope he finds his comfort zone soon.

My only regret about the evening is that while I spent so much time talking with these two interesting people, I probably missed some good conversations with other people. If the guy who was so adamant about honey is reading this, I'm sorry we didn't have more time to talk!