This week, we’re teaming up with the podcast Proof from America’s Test Kitchen to bring you an Oreo story with three delicious parts. First, the longstanding rivalry between two biscuit makers that gave birth to the world’s favorite cookie. Then, one little girl’s brave choice (risking divine punishment!) to taste the famous creme filling. And finally, a full-scale investigation into who really invented that creme filling — and how one “Mr. Oreo” got all the glory.
Read Marjorie Ingall’s essay about the Oreo: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/food/articles/unholy-wafer
Produced by Charlie Herman, Sarah Wyman, and Julia Press, and by Sarah Joyner at Proof.
- How the Oreo cookie went from unknown knock-off to the world’s most popular cookie, as a result of a sibling rivalry between baker brothers
- Stella Parks, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Hey Bridget.
BRIDGET LANCASTER: Hey Charlie, how are you?
CH: I’m good. So, you work at America’s Test Kitchen, right?
BL: I sure do.
CH: And I happen to know you love Oreos…but knowing this, I wanted to share with you this Oreo personality test I found.
BL: Oreo personality test. I don’t even know what that means.
CH: So there’s this retired professor at Virginia Commonwealth University named Randall Sleeth who created this, I think you can fairly say it’s a tongue-in-cheek Oreo test of personality, and it has ten different categories for the ways that you might eat an Oreo cookie, like the whole thing at once or one bite at a time. I for example, I’m number 7. Twist it apart, eating the inside, and then tossing the cookie. And it says “you’re good at business and take risks that pay off. That’s good. You take what you want and throw away the rest. You are greedy, selfish, mean, and lack feeling for others. You should be ashamed of yourself. But that’s ok, you don’t care, you got yours.”
BL: That sounds like you’re an Oreo sociopath at this point!
CH: (laughs) Well, wait a minute Bridget, how do you eat an Oreo?
BL: Well, I’m an expert. I don’t even bother with regular Oreos. I go straight for the Double Stufs. Because I already want more than the regular creme filling.
CH: More creme filling.
BL: Right. Then I take the cookie, I open it up, I peel off that little fluffy white center. I set one aside, and I give those chocolate wafers to my husband who particularly loves them, and I eat a Double Stuf Oreo, and then I finish it off with a dessert of just the stuf.
CH: So you eat one whole cookie.
CH: And then you eat just the inside stuf.
BL: Correct. So it’s like a dessert on a dessert.
CH: But what you’re telling me is you eat the cookie and the stuf separately—so you’re kind of a number 7 on the list… an Oreo sociopath, just like me!
BL: Hey! Well, I think there’s a lick of truth in that, but I’m going to come to my own defense and I don’t toss the cookie, I donate it to my husband!
CH: Oh, you donate it! So in the end, you’re a giver!
BL: I am a giver!
CH: From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… I’m Charlie Herman.
BL: And I’m Bridget Lancaster, host of the podcast Proof, from America’s Test Kitchen, where we investigate the foods we love … and uncover the hidden stories behind them.
CH: This episode, we’re teaming up to present you, the Oreo, the world’s favorite cookie.
BL: Whether you like Double Stuf …
CH: …or Mint…
BL: … or the good old original, you may think you know the Oreo. But when you pull it apart and look closely at those two chocolate wafers and that creamy center, you’ll find there’s a lot more than meets the eye … or the taste buds.
CH: So today, we borrow from the cookie itself and present two stories about who made the Oreo look and taste the way it does.
BL: And in between, we’ve got dessert! It’s one woman’s spiritual journey with the Oreo.
CH: Stay with us.
CH: Everyone knows Oreos. The cookies are sold around the world with flavors specific to local tastes. Like Green Tea Oreos in China.
BL: Or, you have Dulce de Leche in Argentina.
CH: And then there are the really odd ones like Apple Pie, Carrot Cake and Hot and Spicy Cinnamon. Really?
BL: (laughs) It’s one of the things that’s made Oreos so popular — they’re so adaptable. But whatever flavor you prefer, or how you like to eat them, the one thing that does not change is the name: Oreo.
CH: But what’s in a name? In the case of Oreo, possibly, the secrets to its origin. And one person who’s spent a lot of time trying to find that out, is this woman.
STELLA PARKS: I’m Stella Parks and I am Senior Editor at Serious Eats and author of a cookbook called “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.”
CH: What I love about her cookbook is not only are there recipes to make, say homemade Twinkies or Thin Mints—favorites of mine—Stella also digs into the stories behind American desserts. And that includes the Oreo and its name.
SP: We don’t know the origin of the name Oreo. That’s something that Nabisco has been a little bit cagey about.
BL: Nabisco is now part of the snack food company Mondelez. But whoever owns Oreo, they’re not talking.
CH: Oh, and we asked … and did we get an answer? [crickets, owls]
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation about the name. Like, there’s this one idea that the “O-R” in Oreo comes from the French word for gold “or” … because, supposedly, the original packaging was yellow or gold.
BL: And then there’s another idea that the first three letters — O-R-E — come from the medical term, “orexigenic” which means anything that will stimulate the appetite, like say cannabis.
CH: Cannabis? Wouldn’t cannabis make you want to eat a bunch of Oreos?
BL: Yeah, that might be the perfect example of a culinary feedback loop.
CH: (laughs) And then there’s a third theory that the word Oreo is a pictogram … the O’s represent the chocolate wafers and the R-E is for the creme filling in between.
BL: They all feel like a stretch. But Stella believes she has discovered the true origins of the name Oreo. And not only does it sound logical, it makes sense. Because it’s connected to a rivalry that existed between the makers of the Oreo and another cookie that looked exactly like it: the Hydrox.
CH: Around the time Nabisco first started selling the Oreo in 1912, it was also selling a bunch of other cookies.
SP: They kind of have all of these like vaguely botanical themed names. Like they had a cookie called Avena, which, it’s Latin for oats and they had another cookie called Lotus, which is obviously like a Lotus blossom. Um, and they had a cookie called Zephyrette and there’s a kind of Lily called Zephyranthese.
CH: You get the idea. Meanwhile, embossed on the Hydrox cookie — Oreo’s competition — was a very elaborate pattern.
SP: It has a laurel wreath design in the very center, it’s like the crown around the word Hydrox.
CH: It’s really detailed, like you could see leaves and flowers. So, you have the Hydrox, which features a laurel wreath. You have the Oreo, which looks like the Hydrox. And then you have someone at Oreo who happens to love botanical names, and guess what…
SP: There is a Laurel plant called oreodaphne, and that’s the mountain laurel. So given that there is a Laurel crown depicted on the Hydrox, and given that there is a Laurel plant called oreodaphne, and it’s specifically O-R-E-O how it’s spelled and then Daphne after that, that’s where I think it comes from. But that’s just speculation on my part…
BL: It’s also worth noting the man in charge of Nabisco when the Oreo first came out was a huge fan of the classics and classical languages. His name was Adolphus Green. And he often suggested names for Nabisco cookies based on Greek words.
CH: Stella says the folks at Oreo have neither confirmed nor denied her theory, but Bridget, I think it’s a pretty good one.
BL: Yeah, I do too, because the truth is, the Oreo is a knock-off. It’s a copy. Dare I say it, an imposter, a charlatan. It’s not just that it might have taken its name from the Hydrox cookie — it’s pretty clear that it also copied that cookie’s look and flavor.
CH: Because the Hydrox was the first cookie sandwich made up of two chocolate-flavored wafers and a creamy filling. In fact, it had been around for about several years by the time that first Oreo appeared.
BL: Charlie, I’ve got to tell you, I always thought that it was the other way around.
CH: Oh, totally. I thought the same thing — I thought Hydrox was the store-brand, generic-version of Oreo. And I can tell you, when that first Oreo came out, the folks who made the Hydrox cookie, they were pissed.
SP: Hydrox had all of these ads that were really focused on like ‘we are the original and best’ and they seem to like really get stuck on this note of just trying to remind everyone that they were the original.
CH: This cookie war goes all the way back to the 1890s, years before the Hydox or the Oreo were on the scene…
SP: This was an era when kind of industrial baking companies were coming about that were focused more on providing things like dainty goods, these fancy cookies and crackers that were a step above what you would make at home and a step above what people have been buying commercially.
CH: We’re talking vanilla wafers, animal crackers, fig newtons. Now, there were two brothers, Jacob Loose and his older brother Joseph who ran a bakery in Kansas City, Missouri. Jacob was a really good businessman and soon the bakery was thriving. But Jacob realized that if he wanted to keep growing, he’d have to merge with other bakeries in the Midwest.
BL: In 1890, Jacob hired this successful attorney, Adolphus Green. (Remember the guy who loved the classics?) Well, together, they created the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, which became the second largest bakery in the country.
CH: Jacob became president, and his older brother Joseph got a seat on the board.
BL: And Adolphus became the general counsel. There were two other major bakeries in America at this time and eventually a price war broke out among them. It was called the “Biscuit War.”
SP: All these different bakeries across America were just like duking it out to like get their market share and to get a controlling interest of the marketplace and consumer interest. And they were, race to the bottom in terms of prices.
CH: And after seven years, the Biscuit War… it seemed like it might have been a little too much for Jacob.
SP: So then, Jacob Loose kind of experienced some health problems and I actually recently came into the information that he was like convalescing in Europe and that he had to kind of like step down his role with the American Biscuit Company.
CH: So his older brother Joseph took over. Joseph thought the “Biscuit War” was bad for business. And he believed the best way to end it was for the three bakeries to join together and get even bigger.
BL: So just like his brother had done years earlier, Joseph turned to Adolphus Green. Together, they took the American Biscuit Company and merged with its two competitors and created the National Biscuit Company – what would later become “Nabisco.” Now, with more than a hundred bakeries around the country, it could make and sell the same cookies everywhere in America. It was the start of the mass market for cookies. Adolphus became the chairman of the board of the National Biscuit Company, but really, he ran it.
CH: And there was poor old Jacob, convalescing in Europe or wherever, watching his company get swallowed up by its competitors and he was like, “”NOOO! Don’t do it!”
SP: Jacob just violently disagreed with that and wrote letters from his sick bed and begged his brother not to do it. And was just bitterly opposed to this merger of, of his company, of American Biscuit into these other companies.
BL: Jacob was going against the tide in American business at the end of the 19th century. This was the age of monopolies and trusts like Standard Oil and the Sugar Trust and the Tobacco Trust. Leaders of these monopolies knew the bigger they got, the bigger their profits.
CH: Jacob eventually recovered and right away, he wanted back in the game. Maybe he even wanted to get back at his older brother Joseph and Adolphus. A few years later, Jacob had a new business partner and they started a new bakery called the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company.
SP: He takes all of this experience and wisdom and industry connections, I’m sure, and applies this in opening Loose-Wiles and just hustles. And after 10 years from opening this company, and that’s 10 years at Nabisco has had to continue to consolidate its own power. Loose Wiles was the second largest corporate bakery in America.
CH: A distant second, but still impressive. And Jacob and Loose-Wiles had this winning cookie, one that people just loved: the Hydrox.
BL: Now, over at Nabisco, Adolphus saw his old business partner-turned-rival doing really well, in large part thanks to the Hydrox. And then lo and behold, Nabisco came out with the Oreo.
SP: I don’t have anything that would suggest any kind of personal vendetta or personal grudge. Only the kind of natural assumption that you have two separate companies, founded by people who were closely related in a previous business venture, now competing on a national level with identical cookies, like, infer what you will from that.
CH: Oh, let’s infer… If any of this was annoying Jacob, what likely consoled him was knowing, his Hydrox was still “the King of Biscuits,” because in the beginning, Oreo didn’t sell well.
SP: Nabisco was selling it kind of at a loss. Um, and so because it was cheaper than Hydrox, it kind of gave it this like generic quality that it wasn’t as expensive, it wasn’t as nice.
CH: For a while, that’s where things stood between Jacob and Adolphus. Jacob had the better-selling chocolate vanilla sandwich cookie … and Adolphus had the bigger company. Even after they both passed away, the competition between them continued on in their cookies. Eventually, Oreo won. And one reason — well again, it goes back to the name. This time, Hydrox.
SP: The name Hydrox had been intended to inspire like this concept of freshness or cleanness because it was hydrogen and oxygen and just pure science or something. And, then all these other companies were getting another of that Hydrox train for other hydrogen and oxygen products, including like hydrogen peroxide.
CH: So the name “Hydrox” wasn’t helping the cookie.
BL: On top of that, Nabisco was just way better at marketing. In the 1950s, the company did a total make-over of the Oreo and launched a campaign promoting “new Oreos.” It also raised the price. And now, Oreos were more expensive than Hydrox.
CH: And Hydrox — which was now cheaper and with a generic sounding, chemical-like name — it began to look like the knock-off.
BL: So Oreos kept getting more and more popular.
OREO AD: Oh! Oh! Oh! Who’s that kid with the Oreo cookie?
OREO AD: Nabiscooooo…
BL: And the company began to license it in all kinds of products. You had Cookies and Cream or Oreo Waffle Cones — I myself am partial to an Oreo Blizzard.
OREO BLIZZARD AD: And cool off with a mint Oreo blizzard treat!
BL: Today, Oreo is the most popular cookie in the world.
CH: And what of poor old Hydrox? It was a slow, steady decline as Oreo rose to the top. Decades after Jacob started Loose-Wiles bakery, the company was sold. And then sold again. And then sold again. The Hydrox just faded away. It’s now owned by Ellia Kassoff who’s trying to bring the old cookie back. And it’s got a lot of fans, but it has a long way to go if it wants to catch Oreo.
BL: It used to be that you’d place a crown of laurels on the heads of Olympic victors. Today, that crown of laurels, originally on Hydrox cookies, belongs to Oreo.
CH: After the break, one little girl puts everything on the line to taste the difference between the Hydrox and the Oreo.
CH: We’re back. Every once in a while here on Brought to you by…, we like to share stories about brands that have shaped your lives in a segment we call Product Misplacement.
BL: Today’s story is about, what else, Oreos. It comes to us from Marjorie Ingall, who is a writer in New York City. These days, she has a real soft spot for Trader Joe’s Peppermint Joe-Joe’s, and Oreos are a regular part of her family’s snack rotation.
CH: But back when Marjorie was growing up in the 1970s, Oreos were a forbidden fruit. Until she decided to take a life-changing risk.
MARJORIE INGALL: I grew up in a very Jewish home. So keeping kosher, kashrut, was very, very important to my mom.
Keeping kosher is one of those things in the Bible, in the Torah that is “because I said so, that’s why,” from God. There are some things that are spelled out super clearly, and there are some things that are extrapolated from. But the Torah is very clear on the no pigs thing. No pigs. Anything that you eat that is a mammal has to have a split hoof and chew its cud. Pigs, not so much.
Oreos at the time were made with lard. Which is pig, which is a no-go. So we were allowed to have Hydrox, which were not made with lard. And our mothers always told us ‘this is just as good,’ which meant we knew absolutely that it was not just as good.
I was going to orthodox day school at the time, so it wasn’t like I was exposed to Oreos in school, we weren’t allowed to have them, but I just knew, maybe from… there was the commercial at the time was [sings]: “do you know exactly how to eat an Oreo…”
OREO AD: Well, to do it, you unscrew it…
MI: Whatever. They were the ones that were marketed, they must have been better.
OREO AD: Because a kid who ate the middle of an oreo first saves the chocolate cookie outside for last.
MI: Tto me it symbolized the wider world beyond my little childhood world. And it was the first time I really thought about breaking… you know, of course I was a kid, I broke rules, but this was the first time I thought about breaking like a real, God-rule. It wasn’t exactly like shooting heroin, but it sort of had a little of that feeling to it, but it was just… it felt like exactly like the right kind of rebellion for me as a little kid.
So, when I was 7, 8, or 9, I made the decision to go to a very sweet little corner malt-shop situation, (laughs) that makes me sound like I grew up in the ’50s! But I had scoped it out, and I knew you could get Oreos there. So —I paid for the Oreos! I did not steal the Oreos! But it didn’t occur to me until afterwards that I had no way of, I needed to hide the Oreos to get them home, so I put them in my sock, like Rosa Klebb in the James Bond movies with like a knife stuck in her shoe, that was what it felt like. And I went home, and I went into the garden shed in our backyard, because if I were in the house and God struck it with lightning, he would take out the family, and this was a me thing, this was my thing… So, just get the shed, God. And that’s where I tried my first Oreo, was in the dark, next to the garden tools.
I do remember the feeling of finality of opening that crinkly package. And you know, just, I really did think that when I put that thing in my mouth that there would be a lightning strike. I really… not in any kind of ironic sort of cutesy way, I thought that I could die. And was still willing to die! (laughs)
So, in the face of death, I opened the package and I put the Oreo in my mouth and I chewed, and nothing happened. And you know, I was able to focus on the taste of it, and it definitely had a sort of smokier flavor than a Hydrox which was just this pure sweet note, and the cream in an Oreo was grainier, which I do remember thinking ‘maybe this is little pieces of pig’… but it definitely had more texture to it. I did think it tasted better than a Hydrox.
I thought that the odds were good that God would get me on that first bite, like [clap] ‘you’re gonna learn something right now,’ but then he didn’t. At the time, God was still definitely a he to me. And then I was like… you know, I know this God from genesis, and he is manipulative and there are many moral lessons that are terrifying that he wishes to teach his people, so it could be that God will strike me down later. And then I was worried about going back into the house because what if he did it then! And so I had this first moment of relief like ‘whew! not dead!’ And then it was like ‘oh no, dead could happen later because God is so terrifying and vindictive and unpredictable.’ So I remember being anxious for a couple of days. And then I figured, you know what, the time between punishment and sin is too great now and I think he’s not going to do it.
Choosing to eat that Oreo was the first time I consciously broke one of, what I saw as God’s laws. I’d lost my temper in the moment, I’d done things impulsively, but buying and eating the Oreo was not an impulsive act. It was a choice to be bad. And, one, making that choice, and two, not being punished for that choice was pretty earth-shaking for a little kid.
I think all too much history and tradition is handed down and we are told not to question because there are giant authority scrictures in place to make you not question. And you may choose to keep kosher, and indeed as an adult, I still wrestle with what being keeping kosher means and what Jewishness means to me.
For me, this Oreo was a liminal moment, but I also respect people who have made different choices. I think it’s good when people have incredibly diverse responses to their faith, whatever their faith is, or don’t, as long as they don’t judge the way other people go around living their lives. But all of this I think you could trace this back to my struggle with Oreo, you know! It’s questioning what you grew up with and how you think the world should be.
CH: Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best. You can read her essay about Oreos, “Unholy Wafers,” in Tablet Magazine. There’s a link in our episode description.
BL: When we come back, looking for Mr. Oreo.
CH: When we started working on this episode, I came across a man named Sam Porcello. Apparently, he’s really important to Oreo history. He’s credited with inventing the modern Oreo creme filling. He even managed to score the nickname, ‘Mr. Oreo.’
BL: We wanted to do a profile of Mr. Oreo, so we assigned this story to the Managing Producer of Proof, Sara Joyner, and what she came back with…. It was like a Scooby Doo mystery. It was so much more interesting than we had ever expected. And hello, Sara!
SARA JOYNER: Hi Bridget. Hi Charlie.
SJ: Ok, so the assignment was: profile this Mr. Oreo guy, Sam Porcello. Seemed simple enough. I started by basically reading everything I could find about this guy Sam. You know, he has a little section on the Oreo Wikipedia page and he was written about in Time magazine, and there’s even a children’s book written about him. And when he’s written about, the narrative about his life is pretty consistent. He was colorblind, he was one of the world’s foremost cocoa experts, he worked at Nabisco in the ’80s, where he invented the current Oreo creme filling, got the nickname Mr. Oreo, and he passed away in 2012. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but there was one detail that kept tripping me up that made no sense at all. He retired in 1993.
CH: And why would that matter?
SJ: Well, because the Oreo creme filling has changed twice really publicly since 1993! Once, in ’97 when they made the creme filling Kosher. And again, in 2006 when they made the creme filling trans fat free. So this guy who retired from Nabisco in 1993 can not have possibly been the inventor of the modern Oreo creme filling.
CH: Or at least not the sole inventor.
BL: But that is the exact story that is everywhere.
SJ: It is everywhere. A children’s book is written about the guy! So I reached out to Mondelez, which is now the parent company of Oreo, and they said outright: it would be inaccurate to say that Sam Porcello invented the modern Oreo creme. But also, a former Oreo rep I was exchanging emails with said she hadn’t even heard of Sam Porcello.
BL: Never heard of Sam Porcello? Mr. Oreo!?
CH: Dun dun duuunnn… The creamy plot thickens!
SJ: Thank you exactly. That was horrible. I will forgive you and we can move on.
CH: (laughs) We can move on!
BL: It was better than what I was going to say.
CH: Okay, so how did it happen?
SJ: How did this happen is the question of the century. You’ve got this guy getting credit for something that it’s physically impossible for him to have invented. And very legitimate journalists recycling the story again and again with this very obvious, glaring issue. And yet it’s everywhere. And also, this is Oreo we’re talking about, this isn’t some small-time cookie. It’s the most popular cookie in the world. So, yeah, how did this happen!?
BL: Yeah, this is a mystery for the ages!
SJ: But I think I figured it out. It’s pretty easy to trace the internet cookie crumbs…
BL: Oh boy…
SJ: …of Sam Porcello’s story back to its source, which is his own obituary.
BL: Hey, we’ve got a clue!
SJ: Yeah, so let’s talk working theories real quick. Either, one, Sam Porcello exaggerated his own invention, gave himself the nickname Mr. Oreo, and then a bunch of lazy journalists recycled it without fact checking. Or, number two, what if his family sort of played up this big grand story after he passed away to, like, immortalize their loved one?
Either way, I knew that I needed to talk to Sam Porcello’s family at some point. And I actually knew that he had this son named Curtis, because he’d been quoted in some of the articles about Sam. But I decided really early on that I wanted to get a solid handle on all of the facts before I called the family.
So I looked up Sam Porcello’s patents. There are four relating to improving the Oreo creme. Apparently, you know, before this point, the creme filling was a little bit gritty and they wanted to make it smoother and creamier.
As someone who really enjoys food science, these patents are really cool. There are like all these charts and explanations and really interesting science on exactly what makes the Oreo creamy and delicious. And Sam’s biggest contribution has to do with something called the getaway.
BL: Sounds like a Steve McQueen movie.
CH: (laughs) It’s like a Rick Astley song that got rejected on the b-side of “Never Gonna Give You Up”
BL: [singing] Never gonna getaway!
SJ: (laughs) You two… need to be stopped. Okay, the getaway: Basically, it has to do with like the temperature range at which something melts and when it’s solid. So if you’re working on an Oreo creme filling, you want it to be solid until you’re actually eating it, and then at 98 degrees, you want it to melt in your mouth.
BL: Well, it sounds like Sam Porcello is legit.
SJ: Yeah, but when you really look at the fine print on the patents, you realize that Sam’s big contribution in nailing the getaway has to do with the hydrogenation of the oils. And later on when the recipe changed in 2006 to remove trans fat, I mean, that means they removed all hydrogenated oils.
CH: So translation is the very thing that he got a patent for is no longer a key component of the Oreo cookie that we eat today.
SJ: Yeah, they had to significantly re-engineer the filling. The other big problem I see with the patent is that…
SJ: So on every single one of these patents, there’s like co-patent holders.
SJ: This is from an audio diary I kept while reporting
BL: Of course you kept an audio diary, of course you did.
SJ: (laughs) I know, very like me. Anyways, there were like three other names on Sam’s patents.
SJ: James M. Manns of Glenwood, New Jersey. Kenneth…
SJ: And I’m like, who are these guys? And where’s their credit?
PAM MANNS: He didn’t really talk much about work, but those patents are. Yeah, they’re hanging. They’re hanging in my parents house.
SJ: This is Pam Manns, her dad, Jim Manns, was one of the men on Sam Porcello’s patent. But he didn’t want to talk to me.
BL: Son of a biscuit…
SJ: (laughs)No kidding. But he did send me a text. He told me he worked on the Oreo creme filling for a couple of decades. Sam Porcello was actually his boss for several years. And Jim said they became good friends.
PM: I always said my dad was one of the unsung heroes so it’s cool that he could get some publicity.
SJ: Jim wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t speak to me. I couldn’t get anybody involved in the Mr. Oreo story to go on the record: no writers, journalists, publishers, nobody at Mondelez would give me a proper interview. But then I found Miranda Miller.
MIRANDA MILLER: But I did not know Sam Porcello. And I can’t believe that he was the one who originated the the creme filling of Oreos.
SJ: Miranda is one of the scientists that was working on replacing trans fats in Oreos in 2006. And let me be clear – her technology didn’t make it into the Oreos. But she told me about a man named Larry Klemann, apparently he was the real hero of the trans-fat-free creme formula.
MM: He was the guru. He was the guru of fats. That’s just what I call him. But, you know, everybody recognized him as ‘Mr. Lipid’…
SJ: She named some others too, who were really important… Alice Heth and Jim Manns, But here’s the thing… Miranda made it really clear to me that —
MM: (laughs) There is no I in team.
SJ: There are many hands constantly working on these products- R&D teams, engineers, flavorists, the list goes on. And the products change all the time.
MM: But there’s a creeping incrementalism that occurs over time, where over time you kind of get away from the original product. And if you go back to the original formula, sometimes it barely resembles it. But then over the years, there have been hundreds of people who have improved it.
SJ: It became instantly clear to me that there wasn’t one person missing out on credit because of the Mr. Oreo story. There were dozens. So, I decided it was finally time to get in touch with Sam Porcello’s son, Curtis.
And so the day comes and I call him…
SJ: Hello! Can you hear me?
SJ: And I start the conversation by nervously rambling…
SJ: You know we were looking at all these different angles at first, because you know Oreo has all these…
SJ: And like talking, and talking and talking…
SJ: And then there’s this whole thing about them making it kosher in ’98…
SJ: And I sort of, you know, instead of just questioning him about, about what went wrong and, and who started saying things that weren’t exactly true, I decided that the better approach would be to just like nonchalantly say it.
SJ: And I was just a little bit confused because I knew that, like, the recipe had changed after his retirement. And it just seemed like this, like, the character just got, like, so big. And he became the face of the creme filling.
CH: How did he react?
SJ: It’s almost like he didn’t even register what I said?
CURTIS PORCELLO: Ok. I mean, I don’t know how technical I can get for you. (laughs) I can share with you what I know.
SJ: He starts talking about Sam’s life and he starts giving me the exact same plot points that I’ve read time and time again.
CP: And he was one of the world’s leading cocoa experts. He was known at Nabisco as Mr. Oreo.
SJ: And… It’s clear to me that Curtis is really, really proud of his dad.
CP: I think me going away to college was difficult for him. So he’d show up at school and he’d open the trunk and it would just be full of cookies and crackers.
SJ: As we’re talking about, uh, Sam Porcello’s time at Nabisco and Curtis is telling me all the things that his dad did, he very casually mentions, ‘yeah, what my dad did with the filling, like I think that’s the biggest change that’s been done to the Oreo since he worked on it.’ And so I just get this, like, I just, it hits me on this moment and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, like, Curtis doesn’t know about kosher in 1997. He doesn’t know about removing trans fats in 2006. The reason he’s told me and all those other reporters that Sam Porcello invented the modern creme filling is because he thinks he did.’ I do not think Curtis is even aware of the game of telephone he inadvertently started.
BL: And no one else came to him with questions about that. I’m just thinking… were we the first people to really start to question this story?
SJ: I mean, this is the thing. This is the crux of it. How could a story that wasn’t true necessarily be the story that took hold and no one stepped in to stop it. I got so obsessed with trying to solve the mystery that I actually missed a very, very obvious answer.
At the point that Sam left Oreo, for his family, Oreo history stopped there and they didn’t keep up on all of the developments on the Oreo after that point. And it actually makes perfect sense that when he passed and they’re writing an obituary memorializing the life of their loved one, that they would include some of his biggest accomplishments. And so what happened is journalists took that and recycled it and recycled it really without very much rigor and fact-checking because—
CH: We like the story.
SJ: We like the story. We want the character. We want the hero. We want the mascot.
CH: We want to know there’s a Mr. Oreo, that there’s someone out there who’s making the creme filling that we love.
SJ: But that’s not the truth, is it? Like… Sam Porcello will always be Mr. Oreo to Curtis. And Jim Manns might be Mr. Oreo to Pam… but there is no Mr. Oreo. And when we oversimplify the Mr. Oreo story, we’re cheating the world out of all the other people who made this cultural artifact. There’s beauty in their stories too, and there’s beauty in the teamwork.
CH: Bridget, this has been great getting to know Oreos better with you, and getting to know what an Oreo fan you are.
BL: I have enjoyed every moment, and I still have one cookie left! So thanks again, Charlie.
CH: Ugghhh. That’s one more cookie than I have!
BL: [mouth full] I’m not sharing.
CH: This episode was produced by me, Sarah Wyman, and Julia Press. They wanted you to know that they both eat their Oreos one bite at a time, which they think makes them quote “normal.” Sure.
Also, a big thanks to our friends at “Proof, from America’s Test Kitchen:” Bridget Lancaster, Sarah Joyner and Kaitlin Keleher.
And thank you to Marjorie Ingall for her story about Oreos. We have a link to her essay in our episode description.
In fact, we’re actually on the hunt for more stories like hers, what we call “product misplacement” for an episode coming up in our next season. If you have a story to share about a brand that had an unexpected effect on your life, let us know! Maybe duct tape saved you from a precarious situation? Or maybe you drove the Mr. Planter’s Peanut Truck? Perhaps it was when bought your first razor and realized you’re now an adult? Whatever your experience, record a voice memo, and then send it us an email at email@example.com. Or you can call (646) 768-4777 and leave a message. That’s (646) 768-4777.
Special thanks to Claire Banderas and Tyler Murphy. Sound design is by Bill Moss and Matt Boynton. Music is from Audio Network and APM. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme—and Matt, thank you for that very cool fusion of both podcasts theme songs.
Our editor is Micaela Blei. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.