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Long before Seinfield offered “look to the cookie” as a prescription for racial harmony, the black-and-white cookie was iconic New York. It’s wrapped in cellophane in countless delis, sold by the many dozens in bakeries, revered by some, loathed by others—but always, definitely, New York.
D.C.’s cookie inspires considerably less nostalgia. What it lacks in history, however, the salty oat—especially those sold at the city’s three Teaism locations—makes up for in, well, chutzpah. It’s big. It’s chewy. It’s not overly sweet. The salt on the top is slightly short of genius. People leave D.C. and have them FedExed. People who stay here keep buying more and more of them—14,515 in May of this year, nearly 40 percent more than a year before, according to Linda Neumann, Teaism co-owner. If not yet iconic, the salty oat has definitely caught on.
Although both cookies represent cities that occasionally indulge in comparison to each other (OK, D.C. likes to see how it measures up to New York), the salty oat and the black-and-white defy comparison. So let’s not quibble about which city has the better cookie (we do) and start instead from the beginning. First, there was butter.
And Glaser’s Bake Shop. Herb Glaser isn’t precisely sure why his bakery at 87th and 1st on the Upper East Side is credited as the creator of the black-and-white. He just knows his family has been making them at the same location since around the time it opened, 1902. Well, he sort of knows. “I wasn’t around then,” he says, but that’s the legend and, so far, no one has debunked it.
The cookie, as Glaser and his brother, John—head bakers and co-owners—make it, is really what he calls a “drop cake.” It starts with an airy, spreadable batter, with hints of both vanilla and lemon. As is tradition, he flips the baked cookies over and ices the flat side: white fondant on one half, chocolate icing on the other.
Glaser’s has always made two sizes of black-and-whites, small ones and not-so-small ones. In the ’60s, Herb Glaser used to eat at least two of the smaller cookies a day when he’d walk home from school for lunch. As a kid, he admits, “I was kind of fat.” Now, “I try to refrain from eating too many goodies.”
That’s what Morty Krupin says, too, about the black-and-whites his D.C.-by-way-of-Brooklyn deli bakes and sells in Tenleytown. “I don’t really eat them because of my cholesterol,” he says. But he’s happy his customers do. He has a full-time baker churning out a couple hundred a day at the deli, located at 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW and formerly known as Mel Krupin’s (when his brother owned it). “Trays are either full or empty,” says Morty Krupin: just-baked or sold-out.
Krupin knows it’s tough to find a good black-and-white in D.C., and he is counting the imposters sold on the counter in Starbucks. The New York expats who come into Morty’s may not outnumber the college kids who buy them by the dozens, but it’s the natives who occasionally tell Krupin his cookies are as good as the ones at Katz’s on the Lower East Side.
Krupin grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and came to D.C. in 1975. “When I was a kid, they were called a ‘half-moon,’” he says. Lots of people, particularly those from upstate and central New York, still call them half-moons.
Whatever you call them, Emily Botein, a friend of mine who moved from D.C. to New York in the late ’90s, isn’t going to eat them. Emily has dabbled in restaurant work, is a hardcore cookie lover, and is one of the best cookie bakers I know—her biscotti is unimaginably good. She’s also one of those people who has truly found a home in New York. But the city’s cookie is a bit much. “I’m actually scared of the black-and-white,” she says. “I know people who are obsessed with them, but I don’t want to put one in my mouth.”
They’re too sweet, too cakey, for her tastes, but the real problem with black-and-whites is distribution. Seeing them individually wrapped in delis next to the “weird sesame things” doesn’t exactly scream fresh.
The salty oat is another story. For more than a decade, Emily has sought out D.C.’s cookie, buying several on every trip back, imploring others to make a stop at Teaism before they even think about hopping on the Acela. I can also attest that she can go on and on about these things—“I mean, they’re just an amazing cookie”—and had them boxed up and sent to her. She once fired off a letter, asking for the recipe.
Fat chance. Although plenty have tried to crack it (inclucing the Washington Post last year), that recipe is a secret no one is revealing, least of all Terri Horn, its creator. A former pastry chef who worked at both Restaurant Nora and 1789, Horn has made a career out of the salty oat, and now it’s pretty much all she does.
The recipe is one Horn, 50, had in her back pocket for years, ever since a bakery she worked for in North Carolina made a version of it. At Marvelous Market in D.C., where she was on the payroll in the early ’90s, Horn introduced her own variation. “I wanted to make it more wholesome, more nutritious,” she says. She sold the first ones at Marvelous, quit about two years later, and didn’t bake them for a while. Then, in 1996, Michelle Brown and Linda Neumann, a friend of Horn’s from her Restaurant Nora days, opened Teaism in Dupont Circle.
“When they opened, we were probably making about 30 cookies a week,” Horn says. Over the next couple of years, the cookies started taking off, and Horn, who had often thought about moving to Cape Cod, had a revelation in her kayak one day. She packed up and started her own company in Massachusetts, Kayak Cookies. Before she left, she worked out a contract with Teaism: It would make salty oats according to her standards and her recipe and package it under her label. She’d come back a half-dozen or so times a year for a QC check.
The arrangement is working out. “They do an amazing job,” Horn says of Teaism, which now bakes its many thousands of salty oats at its Penn Quarter location. For her part, Neumann says: “We are very, very lucky that Terri is a part of Teaism.”
The lovefest expanded to chocolate, the second flavor of salty oat brought to D.C. around ’99. Horn’s currently trying to develop a third variety: peanut butter honey oat, although she’s having trouble blending the oats and peanut butter into the perfect texture.
When she does get it right, it’ll be available in the city that has embraced what she calls her “curiously salty” cookie. And it won’t be sold at Starbucks.
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