Middle age brings few consolations. I have considerably less hair and a markedly slower metabolism. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of fascinating popping sounds from my joints when I try to do something dramatic like stand up quickly.
On the other hand, I have gleefully embraced being at a stage of life where I can dislike something just because it is novel and unfamiliar. I recently found myself complaining about my kids’ taste in pop music, which, to be clear, is objectively horrible. My son challenged me to name a good pop song, at which I unhesitatingly called back to “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies. A five-minute dive into YouTube revealed, if there was ever any doubt, the terrible lie of nostalgia. That 1993 hit song is every bit as dreadful as what my kids are listening to now.
This brings me to Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies. I have a life-long relationship with these slim, pale strips of palm oil and medium-grade chocolate. I love the original dark chocolate Milano unreservedly and with an enthusiasm that even I find a bit frightening. As an adult, I made the terrible mistake of reading the nutrition information on the package. There is nothing even moderately healthy about these cookies. And yet, I can polish off a bag of them without fear or guilt. Two wafers and a thin coating of dark chocolate take me back to childhood lunches at my grandparents’ house, indulgence purchases when I was a broke college student, cookie trays at office events, and every point in between.
But Pepperidge Farm could not leave well enough alone. There are nearly twenty flavors of Milanos, including seasonal varieties. Between my own curiosity and friends who know my passion, I’ve tried them all. They range in quality from “actually pretty good” (Mint Milano) to “don’t eat this, even on a dare” (the sadly inevitable Pumpkin Spice Milano). When someone at work handed me a bag of Toasted Marshmallow Milanos, I accepted them with due skepticism. My caution was warranted.
The first thing you notice, if you are holding the bag anywhere near your face, is the smell. It is overpowering, somewhere between “wow, that’s a lot of sugar” and “ancient evil unleashed on the world by well-meaning archaeologists who should have listened to the local legend about a terrible curse.” There are hints of the familiar Milano wafer scent, but mostly a powerful blast of food chemistry by-product.
The flavor comes at you fast. There is the classic Milano cookie with its slightly unctuous crunch, the familiar burst of chocolate, and something that tastes not wholly unlike marshmallow. There is even a hint of promised toastiness, though I shudder to think about what kind of food science sorcery produces that effect. The bag carries the enigmatic descriptor “flavored with other natural flavors.” These words contain multitudes.
The problem here is mostly philosophical. What is a marshmallow? Why would an otherwise rational human being intentionally put one in their mouth with the intent to eat? Marshmallows are, to any reasonable observer, disgusting. There is no flavor to speak of, just a shock of sugar delivered in a squishy, gelatinous mass. Adults eat marshmallows for the experience, preferably around a fire with graham crackers and cheap domestic chocolate bars. Pepperidge Farm evidently thinks that people long to eat marshmallows because marshmallows taste good. I beg to differ. The strangest thing about biting into these very weird cookies is that you are tasting something vaguely marshmallowesque, but in the form of a paste that lacks any of the chewy toothiness of even the most rock-bottom kids’ cereal marshmallow. It just feels wrong. This is less a cookie than cognitive dissonance in dessert form.
The world is a complicated place, full of difficult decisions, unintended consequences, and too many choices. Here, however, there is no room for equivocation. For all I know, there are people out there who believe that the world needs twenty flavors of Milano cookies. Some may even be able to convince themselves that the Milano is an acceptable delivery vector for something approximating toasted marshmallow. I can say, with the confidence earned by decades of study, thought, and needlessly doctrinaire opinions, that they are wrong.