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Can Outsiders Appreciate The 'Bawlmer' Berger?

Apr 23, 2012



Now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. And today we'd like to talk about the way we eat now, at least in the mid-Atlantic area.

Now, if you're from or visit this part of the country, then you probably know Baltimore, Maryland's culinary claim to fame is its succulent blue crabs. But you might not know that locals also love its hometown cookie. It's the Berger, a cakey confection capped with a thick dollop of chocolate frosting.

For decades, you couldn't find these treats too far outside the city limits, but now boxes of Bergers are popping up on store shelves in and around Washington, D.C., and one Baltimore-born writer is asking whether this dessert is too good for the nation's capital.

He's Andrew Reiner. He's a professor at Towson University in Maryland and his story "Does Washington Deserve the Bawlmer's Berger Cookies?" was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

You know, I should say welcome, but the insult is so great that I should challenge you to a duel. So I'll try to contain, but - so for people who have never experienced the Berger, it may not seem like such a big deal. Why is it such a big deal?

ANDREW REINER: You know, it's one of those foods that - it's iconic. It's positively iconic. It's like in the piece, you know, I mentioned crab cakes and steamed blue crabs. Right? Everybody thinks of that with Baltimore, of course. It's just part of the fabric of the culture there.

MARTIN: Plus, it's so good.

REINER: It is.

MARTIN: It's so good.

REINER: It is. You know, and it's so interesting because you go into the blogosphere - and what kind of floored me when I was first doing research for this piece was that in the blogosphere so many people who are writing about this cookie are not from Baltimore and they don't really even necessarily know people from Baltimore.

And, as you mentioned, I think, at the outset is that it's from - exclusively always had been from Baltimore and yet it kind of - it just - it's gotten out there and a lot of foodies and blogger foodies around the country know about it.

MARTIN: Why is it that this cookie has remained exclusive to Baltimore until now?

REINER: You know, I would like to give some really amazing insight and some really profound - you know, some amazingly profound, deep observation. The bottom line is that it just didn't have the money. It's just - literally was just plain and simple economics.

MARTIN: They didn't have the money to distribute it or to build a factory - you need, like, regional factories to make it really the way it is?

REINER: Yeah. What's really kind of - in a way, kind of amusing about the whole distribution is that I think there's only about seven trucks and they're not really trucks by the standards of what we see on the highway. They're like vans, really, and they're retrofitted with these air conditioning units in the back, and it's because any time there's warm weather, if they don't have those, you show up with those cookies and it's just this sloggy, chocolate mess.

So it's a matter of having the money to be able to have the trucks that in the warm weather can go to other cities.

MARTIN: So it's kind of like a locavore's delicacy?

REINER: It is. It just - it's so interesting because it has been so tied to the weather.

MARTIN: We're talking about the rise and reach of Berger cookies. Our guest is Andrew Reiner. His story "Does Washington Deserve the Bawlmer's Berger Cookies?" was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

Talk about the birthplace of the Bergers, the factory where they're made.

REINER: It's in this small - it was an ex-factory and it's in a very small space in a part of Baltimore called Cherry Hill that is a very unlikely place. Cherry Hill has been a very poor area where there's a lot of poverty and all the things that, you know, you just would assume would go along with that. And you don't expect to find industry there.

Berger - the bakery is not nearly as large as I thought it was going to be. You know, they had found this space, which I thought was really kind of a stroke of good luck for everybody, through the Baltimore Development Corporation. And they found this place for Charles DeBaufre, who's the owner of the bakery over in Cherry Hill, which I thought was really a great thing.

MARTIN: So why don't you think the people of Washington specifically don't deserve these cookies?

REINER: It's - you know...

MARTIN: And I'm keeping this little box right here on my side of the table.

REINER: Absolutely. And as we hear the cellophane opening - yes.

MARTIN: And I'm opening them up as we hear them opening, and I'm checking out the little - you just ponder why you think we don't deserve these while I open these cookies on my side of the table.

REINER: I will weigh these words carefully.

MARTIN: And I'm just looking at this beautiful bit of cake. I can't even describe it. It's kind of like half a moon pie, only it's vanilla cake, with a ginormous dollop of chocolate, the best part. So I'm waving it at you. Waving it at you. And tell me again why Washingtonians don't deserve these.

REINER: This is the inspiration I need. It's - you know, I'll tell you. Can I give you just a little bit of back story on this, Michel?


REINER: OK. I moved down to the D.C. metro area last June and if you asked my wife, she would quickly tell you that it was not an easy transition for me. So I'm walking around a giant food store and I see the Berger cookies and my first thought, of course, is oh wow. You know, being like an ex-Pat in a foreign city, I'm thinking, oh wow, great, one of my compadres here.

But then a part of me is kind of taken aback and I'm thinking, wait a minute. Is this really such a good thing? So I email. I get the email address for the people at Berger's and I email the owner and I said, why are they down here? You know, there was a part of me - I have to admit, there was a part of me that was slightly incredulous.

MARTIN: You think this is more of a truffle oil town. Right?

REINER: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: Right.

REINER: So I'm thinking, you know, can these folks down here really appreciate the Berger cookie? And so he says to me, well, you know, it strictly, of course, was a financial thing. And I'm thinking, OK. Great. I totally get that, but...

MARTIN: Well, now that you've been here a while, how do you feel? Are you kind of getting used to the idea that maybe we too can enjoy some Bergers?

REINER: Not yet. Not yet. I'm not there yet.

MARTIN: Hater, hater. Andrew Reiner is a professor at Towson University. That's just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. His story "Does Washington Deserve the Bawlmer's Berger Cookies?" was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, where I may let him have a cookie.

Andrew, thanks for coming.

REINER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.