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!


  1. Thanks so much for your post and your account of the evening. I've been reading for the last several months. My wife and I have lived in Madison since the early 70s and greatly miss the cookies.
    We've tried your recipe no. 78 and think it's quite close. Keep up the great work!

  2. Overview to help focus, goal: the original 1965-1985 guerrilla cookies Madison, Wisconsin. Decades have gone by and the inventor of, has not given up the recipe. Now the chance of someone finding that recipe in a old jacket is very slim to none. No one else has made a cookie befitting the legend. The trail has gone cold. The only way to obtain the unobtainable is to re-engineer it. All you have to do is collect enough input, contact a professional recipe manufacturer, get an outline, take the time and spend the money, pick up the trail.
    My best results came when I stopped thinking like a baker and started thinking like a hippy. Also use some ingredients that were in abundance around here back then. Make the recipe like you never want anyone to figure it out. Sprinkle in some ZEN, there used to be a lot of that around here. So less is more and too many cooks will ruin the stew and the cookies.
    The given path is to put together that unique taste first. It's a few ingredients with their flavors balanced together evenly. Next add in the texture, when you get that right it somehow fills out the taste. Now work up the core taste to make that odd shape of the cookie. When you hit those fifteen narrow perameters, this assures you've achieved near certification that you have the recipe right. The last thing you have to do is make small adjustments so a sheen comes out and covers the cookie and stays there. Then you have a cookie that is way ahead of its time. One now that can stand up to any cookie out there today. The proof that you have it right is when you eat one. Close your eyes, if you drift off to moments in your past, Yes, they are like little time machines to some people.
    So what is the evil side of the cookie that he speaks of? And in the end made him walk away without giving up the recipe? This is not an easy thing to explain quickly. This cookie was an adopted mascot to a few groups of people here. Over the years they all have laid claim to it somehow. And as they paid homage to it, this elevated the cookie's stature more. But one day there was no more, so they tried to make a likeness (recipe), to show their love. This also acted like a place holder/shrine. So then all they had to do is wait for the recipe to surface and be offered/given to one of the hippy shrines. But all parties believe that the establishment, University of Wisconsin-Madison, should not have it.

  3. So the stage has been set. I have heard of two stories, that with the above seem to go together and show what might have gone on. Story one, I heard of a man in the late 1980's who tried to sell that recipe with no success. Story two, years later a man unsuccessfully tried to pressure the recipe out of the inventor to save a business. The benefit advertised the long lost cookie to be sold, no last minute call was received with the recipe. so a plain oatmeal cookie was made but did not sell well. The business closed.
    So if you connect the dots, I believe the leprechaun misled everyone and hid his pot of gold (recipe) long enough, then the time came for him to cash out and move on. But the stage was set, and he received no offers. So he only found short sighted greedy people who tried waiting him out. After a time they seemed evil to him. So one day he just walked away and did not look back. We found the evil and it is us (some 0f us).
    The first time I saw guerrilla cookies, they were on the counter as I waited to check out at the Mifflin Coop. I have loved those cookies ever since.
    But, a few years later I was at a restaurant called Good Karma. A member’s only meeting was called to rip-off a recipe of a cookie. So we could make it and sell it in-house. Guerrilla cookies were passed out to all so we could put words to the taste, texture, and how they looked inside and out. In the next few days they gave up trying to make that magic cookie. But I never stopped.
    So who out there has the savvy and enough good karma to further this folklore along? A food critic or food blogger/celebrity? Call a meeting (party) at a restaurant, coffee shop or bar near campus/the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. For those who have interest in this cookie, come be a positive part of this. and let’s see what we can accomplish together.


  4. Those cookies were wonderful. I lived 2 hours away from Madison and ordered some shipped as often as I could afford. I later moved to Madison and the cookies were no more.

    Ted is a real jerk to keep the recipe a secret "to the grave." What's the big deal? Simply sell or give the recipe to some worthy nonprofit or other group of his choice with a strict contract of sale to never give out the recipe. He's a moron.