Is anything lost when a locavore delicacy expands its horizons beyond home turf? One Baltimore native weighs in.
Ever since Berger cookies—a Baltimore staple since the late 1800s—ventured out of Maryland for the first time last May and into grocery stores in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia, I've been staging a one-man protest. Most people, including Charles DeBaufre Jr., whose family-owned company bakes Berger cookies, look at me like I'm crazy. First, there's the look of the Berger, as it's often called, with its leviathan mound of hand-dipped fudge icing atop a cakey wafer. "A chocolate delivery vehicle," is how one cyberspace foodie refers to it. The fudge icing is just that ponderous— and inconsistent. Can a city like DC boasting so many five-star restaurants really value this simple cookie?
It's unrealistic to expect non-natives to appreciate the Berger as Baltimoreans do. How could a novice fully appreciate this dessert of choice at local crab feasts? How could a novice fully appreciate this cookie that inspired the city's confectionary elite—Taharka Brothers, Dangerously Delicious Pies and nationally-acclaimed pastry chef Chris Ford—to create an ice cream flavor, a pie and an upscale doppelgänger of the Berger in its honor? How could a novice possibly feel the same fealty as David Derewicz (general manager of Prime Rib restaurant), who scoured the city following Hurricane Irene last August, seeking out the cookies for his wife. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, Derewicz admitted that he feared the worst after striking out, store after store: "...we thought the plant might be closing...we were very concerned. Isn't it hilarious to feel that way about a cookie?" And that's the real point.
When we talk about reverence for locavore foods (even just a cookie), what we're really talking about is nostalgia: romanticized, emotional longing for something lost. Berger's Facebook page and many of the foodie blog threads about this cookie speak to memories—of long-gone loved ones brightening up family dinners or grandparents handing down their Berger techniques (start with the icing!). To eat this cookie, as with any time-honored locally produced food, is to trigger powerful emotions deeply imprinted in our gastronomic DNA that are inextricably entwined with sense of place. That's the reason that Derewicz— who has childhood memories of drawing a dividing line down Berger's icing with his central incisors—was willing to slog to 10 different stores. He wasn't after a cookie as much as he was his past, his city and his identity.