My husband’s uncle Jonathan is a clinical psychologist in his 60s who grew up on Long Island and lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Because he belongs to the demographic that would care about such things, I told him I was working on a story about black and white cookies, and asked how he felt about them. “I love them,” he answered, without hesitation. “They promise so much.”
The huge round cookie, the thick icing, two kinds of frosting even. “But,” he added, “they’re never that good.” He elaborated on the ways they fall short — the cookie is usually dry, the only way to differentiate between the chocolate and vanilla frostings is that one is more bitter than the other.
So you love them, I clarified, even though they’re not good? “Yes.”
This is the paradox of the black and white cookie, a New York icon that is a celebrated mediocrity, accepted for its shortcomings by those who love it and adored unconditionally despite them. Somehow, black and whites rank up there with bagels, pizza, and cheesecake as among the city’s most emblematic foods, even though most people, lovers and haters, agree that they’re middling. The fact that a cookie called “black and white” occupies such a peculiar grey area is ironic, to say the least.
“Not a single New Yorker I know likes black and whites,” says Arthur Schwartz, the author of several cookbooks, including “New York City Food: An Opinionated History.” “Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re dry boring cake, artificially flavored or not well-flavored icing or fondant out of a can.” Schwartz grew up eating black and white cookies from Rutter’s, his long-departed neighborhood Jewish bakery in Marine Park, Brooklyn. “When I was a kid I certainly loved them,” he concedes. Is it possible they were better back then? “Maybe when I was a kid, they really were good.”
The ambivalence toward black and whites is matched by the confusion surrounding them. “I think they’re misnamed,” says Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, author of “The Mensch Chef,” and a black and white enthusiast. “Because I don’t think they’re cookies. They’re kind of little cakes…