Every cookie has a story. This is the story of the peanut butter cookie I ate in the early morning hours last Wednesday:
In 2003, a University of Pennsylvania student launched a late-night cookie-delivery enterprise to satisfy college students’ sweet teeth while indulging their preferences for minimal exertion and maximum intake of midnight calories.
“When I was in school, [late night food options were] pretty limited to pizza, subs, and Chinese food. And I had a sweet tooth,” explains Seth Berkowitz, the UPenn student who founded — and continues to run — Insomnia Cookies. The cookie company was served up to fill that empty, hungry niche, which Berkowitz classifies as “pretty big.”
The cookies baked by his business, which operated out of his dorm room and delivered to students’ rooms across campus, were the forefathers of the peanut butter delicacy that I would later consume. Now headquartered in New York City with 20 branches operating in college towns across the country, Berkowitz’s simple cookie recipe has been tested, expanded, and refined into an efficient corporation under the name Insomnia Cookies.
These are not your average pastry shop goods — this is a baking operation with an appetite for growth. New Haven’s branch of Insomnia is the latest addition to the burgeoning franchise, and since it opened on January 10, Yalies have flocked to Berkowitz’s late-night business. Between Claire’s, FroyoWorld, Flavors, and Chocopologie, not to mention the cupcake shops and bakeries that abound a few blocks off campus, New Haven is not exactly lacking when it comes to desserts. But Insomnia Cookies has held its own in the sugary landscape, and Berkowitz calls it “one of the best openings we’ve ever had.”
The cookie I ate on Wednesday traces its culinary heritage to the Insomnia shops in New York City and the dorm rooms in Philadelphia, but the ingredients that brought it to life were stored in a regional warehouse, where they awaited their time in the oven. Then those raw elements, the flour and sugar and peanut butter and sweetness that are the building blocks of cookie existence, were delivered to Insomnia’s small store on Chapel Street.
The store’s space is minimalist: dark brown paint on the walls (evoking the essence of rich chocolate), pale hardwood floors, a total of eight bar stools set at high counters. Bright lights. Peppy music. The scent of freshly-baked cookies hits you as soon as you push open the glass door and enter the shop. As Berkowitz explains, the store was “developed to look like a cookie. We want it to feel warm, like a homemade place.” A homemade place where you can pick up a not-quite- homemade treat that still gives you all the warm, nostalgic satisfaction of homemade cookies, complete with a glass of milk. Yum. It’s a fabricated, modular “yum,” though. A cookie with a melted chocolate center conjures up memories of baking at home, of cookies that were too chocolatey or not chocolatey enough, blackened on the edges or underdone, versized or too small. But at Insomnia, the cookie is the same every time: same size, same temperature, same taste. It’s a perfection that turns the attempt to appear homemade into an elaborate performance. In its careful engineering to appeal to an emotional connection to home, it undermines its own image and becomes just another eatery.
When I clicked “Purchase” to place my order online, an employee sitting at a computer in the fluorescent-lit back room received my request, heated up my cookie and its companions in a small oven, and plopped them — expertly melted and piping hot — into a pizza box. A delivery man loaded the gooey cargo into an unmarked sedan before driving three blocks over to High Street. In the shadowy darkness across from the Skull and Bones tomb, I approached him. He passed the box into my open arms and I carried it across Old Campus and up four flights of stairs to my suite, hugging it to my chest to preserve the warmth. When I finally opened the delivery, a dozen cookies of various flavors greeted me, their aromas appealing enough to rouse my sleeping suitemates.
“The cookies are here! They’re here!” they called out as they began to congregate on our futon. Then we dug in. My choice was an easy one: I grabbed the cookie oozing with peanut butter. Within ten minutes they were all gone — except for the hardened remains of an over-baked double chocolate chunk, which was stuck forlornly to the wax paper that lined the cardboard box.
In the morning, the only evidence that my peanut butter cookie had ever existed as anything more than a memory in my stomach was the greasy stain left on the empty box. In the end, it was late-night fast food, packaged beneath a homemade façade. But for this insomniac, an imitation is better than nothing at all.