Editor’s note: OPB’s video series “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. Now we’re taking the same guiding principles to a new platform: Email. We’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and botanist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem every week. This week she uncovers the dog-eat-dog world of Portland’s 19th-century cookie empire.
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No matter how you celebrate, December is for cookies. What better way to pass the holiday season than sharing cookies with our friends and family (or no one at all — we certainly won’t judge). Though these days most name-brand cookies come from just one Chicago conglomerate, in the late 1800s Portland was a central locus of cookie production for the entire western United States. Which household name brand sued Portland’s cookie king for copyright infringement a century ago? Read on to find out!
Next week next week we’ll be digesting our rugelach. We’ll return Dec. 30th with a look at the most essential NW food stories of 2022.
Small bites: Oregon’s first Black-owned bakery, Utah’s cookie wars heat up, and a sweeter way to get more whole grains into your diet
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
Sweet business takes on a sour note.
Last summer, Utah-based cookie company Crumbl sued two competitors, Dirty Dough and Crave, over what Crumbl alleges is “confusingly similar” branding. The logos do all feature a cookie with a bite taken out, but that’s where the similarities end. The real issue, as reported last week by The Hustle’s Juliet Bennett Rylah, is that the brother of Dirty Dough’s founder Bennett Maxwell stole 66 cookie recipes and trade secrets when he ended his stint as an employee on the Crumbl processing line. Hopefully Crumbl can find a glass of milk large enough to dunk those hard feelings.
“Put a little soul in your roll.”
This was the slogan of Oregon’s first Black-owned bakery, Milwaukie Pastry Kitchen. Beloved for its banana whipped cream cake, the bakery was opened by Hurtis and Dorothy Hadley in 1977, after Hurtis made Oregon history as the state’s first Black certified journeyman baker. The bakery closed in 1985 during the Reagan Recession, and Hurtis took work as a baker for Safeway — and made history a third time, as the company’s first Black bakery trainer in Oregon. Hurtis celebrated his 80th birthday on Dec. 2.
Building a better cookie through science.
Crop research scientists at Washington State University have been working for years on developing new quinoa varieties, both for their ability to handle our Northwest climate, and for their application as a gluten-free flour. To test out the suitability of these strains for baking, researchers turned to the most important use for flour: sugar cookies. In taste tests, cookies with a 10% quinoa content received the most favorable reviews (tasters preferred them to whole wheat), but more importantly, they have more fiber and protein, making them a completely reasonable choice for breakfast.
Here at Superabundant, our holiday cookie preferences run a global gamut: series Narrator & All Things Considered Host Crystal Ligori loves melomakarona (Greek honey cookies), and Senior Digital Video Producer Arya Surowidjojo is a fan of the nastar (pineapple cookies) of his Indonesian childhood. Digital Fundraising Manager Juard Van Dijkhorst hankers for stamped speculaas, and snickerdoodles are the favorites of Digital Producer Bob Payne and Superabundant’s Executive Producer, Story Editor and Animator (and the mastermind behind the newsletter’s completely unhinged AI art) MacGregor Campbell. Newsletter writer Heather Arndt Anderson loves Mexican wedding cookies (aka Russian tea cakes). Whether you go for a chocolate-covered peppermint Joe Joe or a classic decorated sugar cookie, there’s a holiday cookie for everyone — and Portland’s history is as steeped in cookies as it is in lumber and beer.
The surprisingly cutthroat history of cookies in Portland
Portions of this story are adapted from Heather Arndt Anderson’s book “Portland: A Food Biography.”
Superabundant has previously covered the storied history of wheat in Oregon and how it put our state on the map as an epicenter of growing and shipping wheat. A century and a half ago, Oregon wheat helped noodles become a Chinese mainstay. We once ruled the West in cookie and cracker production too, and the story of how we got there is anything but sweet.
Watch the Wheat episode of Superabundant
In 1883, at the age of 22, a Kansas-born son of Oregon Trail pioneers named Herman Wittenberg bought a half-interest in the German Bakery and Coffee House located at Southwest 3rd and Alder in downtown Portland (now a parking garage). They sold pastries and cookies baked in-house, plus retailed crackers made by Oregon Steam Bakery, co-owned by Thomas Liebe. In 1886, Liebe and Wittenberg had a difference of opinion over the cracker retailing and severed ties. To keep the German Bakery supplied with crackers, Wittenberg started his own Portland Cracker Company at Northwest 11th and Davis, with financial backing from the Nicolai brothers (for whom the Portland street was named). A year later, Wittenberg sold his interest of the German Bakery to focus on building his new baked cookie and cracker empire.
An 1887 sales book from Portland Cracker Company listed the popular cookies and confections of the era: lemon snaps, Jenny Linds (a caraway-spiced sugar cookie named after the 19th-century opera soprano called the “Swedish nightingale”), picnics (a snickerdoodle-style cookie with a raisin dotting the center), ginger snaps, fruit biscuits (crispy sugar cookies with candied orange peel), vanilla bars, coconut taffy, knicknacks (a sugar cookie flavored with sour milk and lemon oil). Broken cookies could be purchased at a discount, sold in the amount of “two bits” worth.
Portland Cracker Company was doing brisk business, and it didn’t escape notice. In the same ruthless practice later used by flour baron Theodore Wilcox, Oregon Steam Bakery cut prices down to bedrock in order to freeze out its new competition. Unfortunately, the plan backfired miserably, and Portland Cracker Company summarily absorbed Oregon Steam Bakery, just two and half years after rolling out its first sheets of crackers.
In 1891, after moving into the spanking-new brick building on 11th and Davis (now another parking garage), Wittenberg began swallowing up smaller cracker and cookie companies across the region, including several in Washington state. He ran Washington Cracker as a separate company, and took over Oregon Cracker Company (on Northwest 6th and Glisan), eventually turning it into a macaroni factory. These takeovers began a sort of snack war, and soon confectioners in San Francisco were helping Wittenberg’s competitors to try to take him down. He had no other choice but to diversify, and barged into the candy-making business. He purchased the Seattle Steam Candy Company in Seattle and the Bernheim-Alisky Candy Company in Portland, the two largest confectioners in the Northwest.
Although his expansion tactics may seem aggressive, some maintained that the quality of Wittenberg’s product was the real secret of his success. One writer for The West Shore magazine gushed in 1888 that “[w]herever one may go in the northwest, … its brand on a box is a guarantee that the contents are equal to the best made anywhere in the world.” In 1899, Wittenberg sold the Portland Cracker Company (which included Washington Cracker), to the Pacific Coast Biscuit Company, becoming vice-president and manager in the process.
By the turn of the 20th century, Pacific Coast Biscuit controlled 95% of all the cookie and cracker business west of the Rockies. In 1914, National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) sued Pacific Coast Biscuit for unfair competition and copyright infringement; Pacific Coast Biscuit’s logo — a red box with clipped corners — bore an uncanny resemblance to Nabisco’s.
In only 13 years, Wittenberg had made millions of dollars, employed thousands of people and established Portland as the cookie and cracker capital of the West. By the time he sold out to Pacific Coast Biscuit, his company had eight factories and had eaten up 14 other cookie and candy companies from Seattle to Los Angeles. Wittenberg died at the age of 52, but Pacific Coast Biscuit continued, eventually being bought by Nabisco in 1930. Though it all started here, today Nabisco’s owner Mondelez Industries is the world’s largest cookie business.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Recipe: Pflaumenmus tea cookies
Sweet, earthy, smoky, and nutty: these cookies have it all. Kind of like plum pudding in a cookie (pflaumenmus is German plum jam), they’re actually inspired by Lebkuchen — the quintessential German Christmas cookie — but are so much faster and no less complex or deep in flavor (and a great way to use up a bumper crop of plums, if you dehydrated them last fall). German bitter almond extract (Bittermandel) is a key flavoring here, but don’t worry, it’s not bitter at all, and potent enough that just a few drops will do. Look for it online, in European markets, or in the baking aisle of better-stocked grocery stores. If you can’t find it, almond extract will do. Makes about 7 dozen teeny cookies.
1 cup chopped prunes (a few blitzes in the food processor does the trick)
1 cup plus 3 tbsp brewed smoked tea (such as lapsang souchong or Russian caravan)
2 tbsp honey
2-3 drops German Bittermandel (bitter almond) flavoring or 1 tsp almond extract
½ cup (one stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg, room temperature
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
1 cup powdered sugar
- Place the prunes in a heat-proof bowl and pour over the hot tea. Allow them to stand, covered, for an hour, or until the prunes are plumped (prunped?) and tender. Purée the soaked prunes into a thick jam, then stir in the Bittermandel and honey and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
- In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg and mix for a minute until fully combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then add the flour mixture and the prune mixture and mix until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again, then fold in the walnuts.
- Portion the dough (using a 1-tablespoon scoop or two spoons) onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing one inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes, then move to a cooling rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet.
- To make the icing, mix the extra 3 tablespoons of tea with the powdered sugar, adding more liquid as needed to make an icing thin enough to drizzle but thick enough to harden quickly; it should be the consistency of white glue. Use a spoon to drizzle in a pretty pattern as pictured above.