Tuesday, August 18, 2015
The pinwheel turns
Before I ever came to Chicago, Chicago came to me, with all its sweet ethnic pride, in the form of Maurice Lenell cookies. I didn't know it, at the time, that these small, sugary emissaries, marching by the millions from their Harlem Avenue plant, were a lingering remnant of the city's vibrant Swedish community, along with Andersonville, Peterson Avenue, and Walgreen's.
A remnant that will fade out of existence now that the brand has been shut down by its owner, Consolidated Biscuit of Ohio.
No more almonettes. No more raspberry jelly swirls. No more—sob!—pinwheels.
Of course there was always more to Maurice Lenell than just cookies. They had the crinkly red paper nest the cookies sat stacked in. The distinctive logo, a lucky boy who had somehow contrived to find a cookie jar larger than himself and climb inside. The cookies were all of a size, about a half dollar, came in two dozen varieties.
Not that the varieties were equal: there was a hierarchy. At the bottom, the Chinese almond—boring. Next, the chocolate chip -- always a disappointment, never really very chocolate chippy. Better were the hexagonal cookies topped with coarse sugar, and the raspberry jelly swirls, with their tongue-pleasing ridges and glob of red goo—they might call it "jelly," but it was hard, and would embed itself in your molar to be picked out with a fingernail.
And the empyrean, the best-selling pinwheel. A dense disc of sugar, swirled chocolate and vanilla, with an improbable pink trim.
They spelled cookie "cooky," "The Maurice Lenell Cooky Co.," a throwback to its origins: Hans and Gunnar Lenell. who opened the Lenell Bakery in 1925, and then joined with friend Agaard Billing in 1937 to start the company at 3352 N. Milwaukee. The company moved to West Belmont Avenue in 1940 and built the last Harlem Avenue plant in 1956 (okay, not in Chicago, but Norridge. Close enough for baseball).
Speaking of lucky boys, I toured the Harlem factory, though it took some doing. As a card-carrying member of the Division Street Russian Baths, I would take the heat, and one of the sweaty Jewish guys on the bench with me was Wayne Cohen, whose father Sonny bought the company in 1987. He was reluctant to let me visit. Why? I wondered. The machine, he said, for making pinwheels is proprietary. He worried their competitors would learn their secrets.
"How about this," I suggested. "You don't show me the machine that makes the pinwheels. And I'll promise not to say anything about how pinwheels are made. So between your not showing it to me and my not writing anything about it, the secret will be safe."
That worked. So I got to walk through the plant, which closed when Lenell went bankrupt in 2008. Passing happily through pools of aroma, puffs of almond, of sugary sweetness. If you like pinwheels from a box, imagine eating one hot off the production line. Bliss.
For years afterward, at Christmas, Lenell would dispatch a four-pound drum of cookies, sometimes several drums which, ethical journalist I am, I would either set out in the newsroom or convey to the local firehouse. It made a grand procession down Halsted Street, me, holding the big drum, two eager boys skipping along after, on our way to make firemen happy.
People are rushing to buy up the dwindling stock, but they're just postponing the inevitable. It's sorta sad, spinning the dials of your safe, pulling out that last stack of pinwheels, laying on a chaise in a dimmed room and slowly bringing it to your lips, weeping.
I've reached the point where I let stuff go. It's the Willis Tower now. Deal with it. If you love Maurice Lenell Cookies, you've already had better memories of them than you'll get by fetishizing the last ones made by some company in Ohio.
Better to end with one last Maurice Lenell memory. Then we'll sweep the crumbs into the dust pan of history.
There was a huge old furnace in the basement of our building at Pine Grove, some 1920s relic too big to remove. I always told the boys that a monster lived there. Now and then I'd suggest we go down and feed the monster in the basement. I can see us, one boy gingerly holding a paper plate containing a couple of Lenell cookies--not all those tins got to the firemen. A boy would timidly set it down, and as they'd bolt for safety, I would sky the cookies off the plate, jam them into my mouth, and follow.
We'd assemble just outside the furnace room.
"Go back," I'd whisper. "And see if the monster ate the cookies."
The younger one cautiously peeked through the doorway, at the bare white plate set before the furnace.
"They're gone!" he said.
Now Maurice Lenell is gone too. But they were here, once, and that's the important thing.