Friday, October 20, 2006

The Malfeasance of Oreo

You might accuse me of lacking any pleasing moments in my life, but I enjoy no bigger delight than to find a mistake in my package of Oreos, and as a result of mass production, I’m not surprised that the whirling machines that carefully assemble my Oreos and place them lovingly in the packages (as lovingly as a machine can, but then again, I like to suspect that all of the machines laboring away at the Nabisco plant are preprogrammed with many megabytes of love) would be able to make a mistake from time to time. It seems that I have to polish through three or four packages of Oreos in order to come across a mistake, but I’m tickled when my fingers palpitate the smooth logoless side of the Oreo cookie intended to hold my sandwiched cream filling. The cookie on one side was facing the wrong way, not deformed or twisted, but just on backwards.

Usually, since I’m not intently studying each and every Oreo I pick up and pop into my mouth—it’s a consumer’s supreme act of faith—when my finger slides over the smooth cookie, it throws me for a loop, as I’m expecting a rutted texture. So I sit there for a moment and give it a good going over, marveling at the cookie de errata and the fact that it survived through whatever quality inspection Nabisco has in place only to make it into a package with a host of regular Oreos, to the store, into my basket, my pantry, my couch and my mouth (stopping along the way to be drown in a glass of milk).

I’m not complaining, mind you, as the backwards Oreo tastes the same as all of the regular ones (as long as you don’t tongue it, of course); that’s not what this is about, but it makes for a nice introduction to the source of my complaint.

I’m not 100 percent sure how I found this out, but I think the good folks at Nabisco have been shortchanging the general public, probably—now I can’t verify this—but probably since 1912 when the wonderful cookies were invented.

But how, Ryan, how? Tell us the details.

Since you asked, way back in 1898, a few bakeries combined forces and called themselves the National Biscuit Company, and since it was a pain to write that on ever check whenever they paid someone, they shortened it to NaBisCo. Don’t take my word for it; here is a quote from the book Advertising in America—The First 200 Years:

“In the early 1890's there were hundreds of hometown bakers putting out generic crackers in barrels and plain cookies in square shipping boxes...There were soon far too many bakers for anyone to make a decent living, so they began to combine. For eight years, savage merger fights reduced the market to three very large companies: New York Biscuit, American Biscuit, and United States Baking. In 1898, a Chicago lawyer named Adolphus Green convinced the big three that they would all do better as a single unit; they worked out a deal and the National Biscuit Company was born with 114 bakeries firing 400 ovens. In its first year, NBC owned 70 percent of all the bakeries in America. Green was convinced that to make it all work, he had to kill the idea of 'a cracker is a cracker.' A National Biscuit Company cracker — or cookie — was going to be one of a kind.”

The idea for the Oreo was born.

Incidentally, you may have enjoyed those little boxes of animal cookies way back in your youth (in fact, I’m fairly certain there is a box in the pantry as I write this), the one that looks like a circus train car with the little string? Yeah, those people. By the way, the string was attached so that the box could be hung on the Christmas tree, or so say the folks at Kraft.

The year was 1912, and nothing much was happing in the world, save for the quiet buildup to World War I, and some genius in the research department of the Nabisco factory came up with a new cookie consisting of two chocolate discs with a dollop of cream sandwiched in the middle. They called it the Oreo, and it’s shape, form and appearance has changed greatly since the first one rolled off the presses. In 1952, William A Turnier developed the sandwich form that we know and love today; it was based on the chocolate wafers designed by John D. Unger

But why Oreo? What does it mean?

Seriously, I don’t know. Nobody does. Not Nabisco, not Kraft, not anyone. Some people think that it comes from the French word for “gold” or, since the early packages were gold in color, while others think that it comes from the Greek word for mountain, “oreo,” because the original shape of the first Oreos were mounds… which I can’t possibly picture, so I can’t even describe it. Maybe “Oreo” was just easy to pronounce and fun to say… like Ohio.

Though I can’t picture it mound shape, I can describe the Oreo as we know it today: It is 1-3/4-inches wide and ¾-inches tall, and if every Oreo cookie ever made—some 400 billion—were stacked on top of each other it would reach from the couch in my living room to the moon… and back… five times. That’s 3.9 billion miles, folks, one heck of a lot of Oreos. Can’t picture that? Okay. On my ottoman here, I’m going to start lining up Oreos, side by side, not just the ones in my package, but the Oreos in all of the packages, all of the packages ever made. As I keep lining them up, side-by-side, I’ve circled the Earth, not once, not twice, not even thrice, but 381 times. Still, that’s a lot of Oreos.

So, why is it, that when I first open my package of Double Stuf Oreos, do I feel like someone along the production line at Nabisco clipped out a few for themselves? There is about an inch to an inch and a half in each of the three compartments, which seems like there is plenty of room for more Oreos. Miffed, I pulled off the wrapper… and I know I’ve committed myself to eat all of them as soon as the wrapper—have you ever tried to get that plastic tray back into the packaging?

According to the package, each Oreo weighs about 14.5 grams each and the whole package tops the scales at 510 grams, which leads me to believe that there should be 35 Oreos in this package, but there isn’t. There’s only 34: two rows of 11 and one of 12, the middle row. Given the amount of room left in the package, there is enough space to at least make it an even three dozen cookies.

A few years ago, I read a book called Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, which told of the sordid details of the RJ Reynolds/Nabisco leveraged buyout by its CEO F. Ross Johnson and the heavy opposition from Henry Kravis and his associates in the late 70s.

Little sidebar here: Kravis was my connection at the time because I working at a company that was part of his vast holdings, hence my interest in the book. One day, I received a letter from an angry reader who didn’t like that I included Hitler in a list of the 25 most influential people in the history of the Volkswagen, and this letter had traveled up the chain of command, actually reaching Kravis’s desk before it plummeted down into the trenches to mine. I wondered who Kravis was, and my publisher loaned me that book.

At any rate, when you want to ask a few questions about an Oreo, you don’t call Nabisco, you call Kraft, the makers of Macaroni and Cheese for kids and truckloads of cigarettes… also, they hope, for kids. So, let’s give Nabisco a call, and even though their message on the package isn’t as welcoming as other companies I’ve bugged in the past, their number is [(800) 622-4726, which spells Nabisco by the way]. I’m not going to say that the folks at Kraft weren’t as gracious or full of the hospitality I would have expected, but it is clear that they don’t like questions asked of them; that or I got a customer service representative who was either about to be fired for sleeping on the job or was sleeping on the job when I woke her up with the ringing of the phone.

I asked about the packaging, I asked about the missing Oreos, and I asked about the weight. I was told that it was due to settling, which I didn’t exactly believe; these aren’t potato chips but hard cookies that shouldn’t settle unless their wet. I was assured that nobody was sneaking Oreos out of any of the packages, specifically mine (though I’m still skeptical), and I was told that the weights are approximate measures. How can a computer and automated packaging machine make approximations? I was assured that they do (with love, I remembered).

When they package the Oreos, they are divided up according to weight and sometimes that means there is 35 Oreos and sometimes 34 Oreos… a lucky few get the magic number 36, I’m sure.

I’m not so much disappointed about the number of Oreos in my package; frankly, I shouldn’t eat any of them anymore, but what irks me is that a multi-billion-dollar company can’t seem to hire CSRs that are in good spirits and informative. I mean, really, the interchange was hardly worth me writing about, and that’s what I find really upsetting.

So, why don’t I switch to Sunshine Hydrox cookies which are remarkably similar if I have such a problem with Oreo? First off, it would be nice to try the competition; I’ve never had a Hydrox, and if I ever did, I probably looked at them as if they were some strange local cookie trying to get a chunk of the chocolate cookie sandwich pie. Well, ignorance is bliss, right? History will show us that the first to market isn’t the first to the bank: Sunshine came up with the idea for a chocolate cookie sandwich in 1908, four years before Oreo, but sadly, after almost 90 years in the business, in 1996, they were acquired by the little elves of Keebler and quietly shut down.

Oreo rules, literally.


Kara said...

I've had a Hydrox cookie. I remember really liking the name as a kid. I didn't know they didn't make them any more. How sad.

Julien said...

I was just eating some Oreos. I took one and split it in half to lick the cream. I was surprised by a rough sensation on my tongue, when I realized that the Oreo label, found on each cookie, was engraved in the cream. It had been placed incorrectly. I typed in "oreo with one side backwards" and found your page. And if I had let someone else eat that Oreo, would I be here commenting? I don't know.
I'm Julien, and I'm 14 years old.
Thanks for writing your article.


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