The Enduring Mystery of the Oreo Cookie Design

Marla Keays via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marla Keays via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When the National Biscuit Company introduced the Oreo cookie in March of 1912, there was no mistaking its origins. It was a blatant knock-off of Sunshine Biscuits's Hydrox, a double-wafer chocolate and cream sandwich snack that capitalized on the popularity of a similar home-baked treat that had been circulating since the mid-1800s.

The Hydrox was introduced in 1908. But Sunshine had relatively little of the advertising or production power of Nabisco, which was formed in 1898 as a conglomerate of baking companies: The fact that it beat Oreo to shelves by four years was irrelevant. Consumers largely passed up Hydrox and opted for Oreos, which were sold in bulk for 30 cents a pound.

The two cookies had more in common than a similar taste: Both used cookies that were ornate, with wreaths adorning the outer side. In 1952, possibly in an attempt to further distance themselves from the competition, Nabisco opted to change the Oreo design to a slightly more complex pattern that has invited comparisons to everything from the Knights Templar to the Freemasons.

Were conspiracy theorists focusing too hard on the humble Oreo? Or has the cookie been trying to tell us something all along?

Morgan via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Oreo wasn’t the only snack Nabisco introduced in 1912. The company also produced Veronese biscuits and Mother Goose cookies, the latter embossed with characters from popular nursery rhymes. As with Hydrox, it had become common to create cookie molds that could imprint a distinctive shape on top of the crunchy wafers. It's a practice that likely has origins in Europe, where producers of communion wafers used molds to create edible religious symbols.

Mass-market cookie businesses had more cynical motivations. It was in their best interests to create distinctive patterns that helped consumers distinguish one product from another. Nabisco’s Lorna Doone cookies had a vaguely atomic symbol along with the cookie’s name; Hydrox opted for flower petals in addition to wreaths. Even out of the package, it was easy to tell one sugary snack from the other.

In 1924, Nabisco made a slight alteration to the Oreo, adding turtle doves on either end of the cookie’s name and enlarging the font. It remained unchanged for nearly 30 years, until 1952, when a former Nabisco mail room employee named William Turnier was tasked with building a better cookie.

Turnier had arrived at the company in 1923, running correspondence for executives before he befriended workers on the food engineering side of their headquarters in New York City. At night, he pursued his GED: Turnier had dropped out of school over bullying he had experienced as a result of being afflicted with polio.

“He was about 18 months old when he got it,” Bill Turnier, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina and the late designer’s son, tells mental_floss. “He was a very bright guy and should’ve gone on to college, but people made fun of his limp and he couldn’t take it. Bullying is nothing new.”

Shadowing creative employees, Turnier developed a new skill set—industrial engineer—and was eventually hired on to revamp Nutter Butter as well as their line of Milk-Bone dog treats.

It’s not known what direction, if any, Turnier was given when it was time to give the Oreo a facelift. The only thing he kept was the cookie’s name in the center. In place of the wreaths, Turnier positioned an array of four-petal flowers. Surrounding the word “Oreo” was a colophon, or emblem, that was a circle with two crossed lines at the top. It was the same design Nabisco had been using to adorn its company logo.

“That was his idea,” Turnier says. “That design goes back to monks who used it on the bottom of manuscripts they copied in Medieval times. It was a sign of craft—saying they did the best they could. Nabisco really liked that.”

Satisfied with Turnier’s blueprint, which allowed the company to create dough molds to his specifications, the Oreo underwent its cosmetic change in 1952; Turnier continued to work for Nabisco until retiring in 1973. It was unlikely he had any awareness that his design for the Oreo would become a kind of Rorschach test for snack lovers, with people finding subversive messages in the way he illustrated the cookie.

In theories that have become easier to disseminate with the advent of the internet, some Oreo observers have noted that Turnier’s four-leaf flower looks remarkably like a cross pattée, a symbol that the Knights Templar carried into the Crusades in the 12th century. The two-bar cross could be construed as the Cross of Lorraine, also from the Knights Templar. Alternately, both could be a subtle nod to the Freemasons, a secret society that functions to this day.

How much of this is inferred and how much did Turnier intend? According to his son, the elder Turnier's choices were aesthetic in nature. “He just liked the look of the flowers. He could never understand when people would locate him demanding some kind of explanation. ‘Why did you use a four-petal flower? There aren’t any!’ Here’s a man in his 80s, and he’d call me up quite distressed.

“And of course, there is a four-petal flower, the fireweed. We had some when I was growing up in our backyard.”

Likewise, there was no meaning to the number of ridges—90—that surround the cookie’s margin. “He said he probably used a compass to make sure they were evenly-spaced,” Turnier says. The smaller triangles near the word “Oreo” were probably inserted to avoid having any empty space on the cookie’s face.

While Turnier believes his father was not inclined to reference religious iconography, he does note that one member of his family held an intriguing position. “My grandfather was a Freemason,” he says. “But my dad was Catholic.” Though he was probably exposed to Freemason imagery during his life, Turnier had no intention of delivering a secret handshake to cookie lovers.

Andy Melton via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Nabisco has never offered an official explanation for the design. They do not, in fact, fully acknowledge Turnier had anything to do with it, insisting that their records don’t account for who was responsible for the cookie’s alteration in 1952—only that Turnier worked as a design engineer during that period of time.

Turnier, who keeps a copy of his father’s original 1952 blueprint hanging in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina home, believes the Oreo was simply adorned with easy-to-replicate designs that were possible thanks to the cookie’s durable texture. “The dough dictates what you can do with the cookie,” he says. “The dough for Oreo, you could almost make a coin out of it. You can insert a lot of detail. And then people look for meaning.”

The elder Turnier died in 2004. In contrast to the theories and mystery that have surrounded his work, the etching on his tombstone is unmistakable: Set in the upper right corner just above his name is a fully adorned Oreo cookie. 

The Reason White Castle Slider Burgers Have Five Holes

White Castle
White Castle

While it’s not often mentioned in conversations about the best fast food burger on the menu alongside staples like Shake Shack or In-N-Out, the White Castle slider burger still holds a special place in the stomachs of those who enjoy their bite-sized convenience. In 2014, TIME even named the slider the most influential burger of all time, with its debut in 1921 helping begin our nation’s obsession with fast-service burgers.

Peel the bun off a White Castle burger and you’ll find the square meat patty has exactly five holes. Why? Thrillist writer Wil Fulton went looking for an answer to this gastronomic mystery. It turns out that the holes serve a very functional purpose.

In 1954, a Cincinnati-based White Castle employee named Earl Howell stuffed his location’s suggestion box with a note that said the patties might cook more quickly if they were pierced. The reason? The franchise steams its burgers on the grill, and the holes allow the steam to better penetrate the stacks of patties (usually 30 burgers tall) that are piled on the grill at one time. No one has to flip the burgers, and they wind up coming out of the kitchen faster. The steam also picks up the flavor of the onion acting as a bottom layer, allowing it to spread through the stack.

Howell’s idea soon spread from Ohio to White Castle restaurants nationwide. The company facilitates the creation of the holes by puncturing a “meat log” and then slicing it and sending the patties to locations.

If you enjoy their distinctive flavor, the holes have a lot to do with it. Enjoy.

[h/t Thrillist]

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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