There are a couple of questions in the world for which there is only one right — and by right I mean socially, morally and logically acceptable — answer. What’s two plus two? Four. Did you file your taxes? Yes. What’s north of the North Pole? Shut up. Do you like cookies? Yes.
That last question is the vital one. Have you ever met a (sane) person who, at the fundament of his or her soul, could consistently and without remorse say no to a cookie? (This is discounting diabetics, vegans, people who live in the barren desolate tundra and have no idea what a cookie is and people who hate happiness.) This beautiful little baked good is the epitome of modest but essential pleasure — it transcends basic biological needs to address our desire for sweetness and fulfillment in life. It speaks equally to our palates and to our hearts. It is the culinary equivalent of a smile, which as we know means the same thing to everyone everywhere in the world: Yay.
Granted, to say that cookies are universally loved isn’t to say that the world of cookie-enjoyment isn’t complex. It’s populated, of course, by a vast range of tastes. Some of us want thin and crispy; others prefer inch-thick and undercooked. Pretty much everyone likes them when they’re fresh, but that two-day-old crumbliness jives well with some palates and not with others. And that’s to say nothing about flavor — maybe you hanker for Mom’s classic chocolate chip, or that funky hippie outlier oatmeal raisin, or peppy preppy white-Ked white-chocolate macadamia nut, or maybe something really strange and friendless with jam or coconut in it.
To further compound the multiplicity of our cookie preferences, it appears that the modern cookie is having a kind of identity crisis. In the Yale dining halls, for example, it really enjoys being sustainable and organic, and gets along pretty well with the toaster. Over at Levain Bakery, one of Manhattan’s favorite cookie hot spots, it is as thick as your Microbiology textbook and as gooey as the center of the earth. Sometimes it apparently wants to be a pirate (hence Chips Ahoy), and other times it recedes from the realm of reality altogether (see the Keebler Elf products).
But given all these incarnations of taste, is it still possible to isolate the universal likability of cookies? Totally. I don’t want to encourage food fights between the doughy and crispy constituencies, but I think there is definitely a strange attractor underlying all this cookie chaos.
The Cookie of Primordial Unanimous Yum has three major characteristics:
1) No primary ingredients with names longer than two syllables (vanilla being the big exception, although if you sort of slur the “n” into the double “l,” you can make it work). That knocks off partially hydrogenated anything, and it also excludes margarine and Sweet’N Low. Everything that goes in is high-quality and unprocessed. But a good cookie is not the same thing as a good-for-you cookie. (If you are a total health nut, you are hereby exempt from the cookie discussion. Go eat some trail mix.)
2) The right consistency: a little crunch, a little chew and a little goo. A great cookie is not a cracker—it isn’t too flimsy or crumbly or thin, but rather has some heft and substance. The center is soft and yielding but not overripe; you can compress it with your finger without breaking either the cookie or your finger. This perfect cookie is also not a piece of cake, meaning that it isn’t spongy, and you don’t have to cup your hand under it to catch the crumb spray. And it isn’t taffy either, so you don’t have to yank at it with your face or chew until your temples hurt.
3) A more or less flat, circular shape. That flat circularity is at once comfortable, compelling and magical. Remember that next time you try to bake that entire Pillsbury cylinder in one shot.
Put all these traits together, and you’ve got an essentially irresistible baked good. The chocolate chips and walnuts and Craisins are just accessories, to be swapped in and out of the batter with relative ease.
I guess the only remaining question is: If you’ve got a cookie, do you really need friends? Think about it. You already love your cookie unconditionally, and it never fails to make you happy. It will never borrow your favorite pink shorts and get crud on them, or agonize endlessly in your ear about its relationship status. It will comfort you in the night when you’re feeling undersexed; it will uncomplainingly watch John Cusack movies with you over and over; it will never tell anyone about that time you got drunk and ran up and down the stairs of your entryway naked, singing the 1812 Overture and trying to molest the trash can. And do you really want the world to know about that? (There’s only one right answer.)