Why you should care
You take certain things for granted when you grow up in Baltimore. Crab feasts and summers with thousand-percent humidity; Old Bay Seasoning in your eyes and your paper cuts (etc.). Fireflies, gun violence, Utz potato chips. Upon relocating, a Baltimoron pines for some things and tries to forget others. One item falls squarely in the first category — and it falls hard and dense, a fragrant, baked-good brick.
When my niece Julia was 7, she described the iconic Bergers cookie this way: “Burger cookies are very chocklity. They also are very big. The chocklit is all over the cookie.” That about sums it up. Her typo gets to the heart of this confection: To a child, semi-fresh to the ABCs game, how could such an item not be named Burger? This is no Toll House, no Chips Ahoy: In its caloric (140 per cookie), chocolaty nucleus, a Bergers is roughly an inch and a half thick. Its bottom half is a blond disc of cookie; its top half is fudge. All of it is delicious.
It’s a cookie.
Charlie DeBaufre, owner of Bergers
Bergers was founded back in 1835 by Henry and George Berger, German immigrants who opened a bakery in East Baltimore. By the late 1800s, the cookies were sold all over the city at open-air markets. It’s entirely conceivable that my maternal great-grandparents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia and England, were Berger fiends; I certainly ate them at my Pop and Mee-Mom’s house. Owner Charlie DeBaufre, whose father started working with the company in 1938 at age 12, says the cookie hasn’t changed much in at least 50 years. And when it did change, it was for one reason only: the government. “Butter was ’bad,’ so we moved to margarine. Now they say margarine is bad,” DeBaufre laments, adding that Bergers are not health food. “It’s a cookie.”
The bakery makes 30,000 cookies a day — each of them crafted and boxed by hand. That’s 30,000 handfuls of happiness; 30,000 grenades in the global battle against hopelessness. DeBaufre gets orders from all over, including from Mountain View, California, where OZY and Google, among others, are headquartered. The bakery’s driver takes shipments to an out-of-the way post office near the Pennsylvania border, bearing treats for the post office ladies, of course. Once, DeBaufre says, to get around China’s rule against shipping food into the country, a customer found someone willing to take Bergers boxes on an overseas flight and meet the recipient at the airport. Another time, a man phoned in an order for his daughter in South Africa. Two days later, says DeBaufre, someone else phoned in an order for his girlfriend in South Africa. When DeBaufre realized it was the same woman, he told the boyfriend, who then asked how many boxes the woman’s father had shipped (two). “I’d better send her three,” the boyfriend replied.
Bergers has had its bumps. Several years ago, when DeBaufre was recovering from a major illness, a demo of a “trans-fat-free” label was mistakenly used; a whole lot of boxes had to be stickered over by hand. The same year, a former employee failed to renew the food permit, says DeBaufre, and the health department shut them down. A horrendous rain storm once battered old windows so hard that all the cookie boxes got soaked, forcing them to close for 10 days. And now DeBaufre is on an FDA deadline to eliminate trans fats from his product. This daunted him in the past (old test versions tasted like “crap”). But test runs using improved alternatives have yielded tasty results, and a trans-fat-free Berger should hit shelves by January 2017. Does anything threaten the future of this Baltimore treasure? DeBaufre: “Other than the government?” He is seeking a fix for high-fructose corn syrup, which he predicts will be the next battle. And reiterates: “It’s a cookie.”
“Everybody loves them,” says DeBaufre. Well … not everyone. “I only ever ate them stoned,” says Van Smith, a former Baltimore City Paper investigative journalist. “Otherwise, kinda gross.” (DeBaufre concedes that the cookie is “rich.”)
As opinions go, Smith’s is on the meritless end of the spectrum, but I include it for fairness and balance. After all, I’m still a journalist, even if I don’t actually believe there is any valid perspective — any other perspective — on the Berger besides “best cookie in the known universe.” Berger is king. All hail.
Bergers Cookies, Critique and Rebuttal
“I love a cookie that is light and crisp.” Fair enough; this is not the cookie for you. Bergers, however, are still the best.
“With its intense and cakey base, it’s more of a tiny cake than a cookie.” And?
“This cookie is all about chocolate.” People who prefer vanilla, cinnamon-oatmeal-raisin or, God forbid, mint over chocolate are deficient in the same enzyme whose lack results in a fondness for cats and an aversion to cilantro. Talk to your doctor.