Goodbye Mother(‘s)

About cookies, globalization and capitalism

Well, it has finally happened. My two worlds have collided. An Italian company has ruthlessly bought the cookie company of my childhood, Mother’s, whose factory has stood in Oakland, California since 1914, churning out remarkably identical animal crackers and oddly square cookies for over a century.

As we read not long ago in a piece by my colleague, Asia Guerreschi, Ferrero, the Piedmontese company that makes the iconic Italian chocolate hazelnut spread that is known and loved throughout the world, Nutella, is now facing some competition from a new entrant into the field, Rossana. While I am glad that Ferrero is not resting on its laurels and has actually gone on the attack itself, I am really not so sure I like the fact that they are fighting for market share by scooping up the maker of the pink and white sugar bombs that so delighted me in my youth.

To be clear, Ferrero did not buy just Mother’s; the Oakland company was merely one of the brands that the sugary Italian behemoth acquired in its latest move toward world snack domination. It also bought up a few other Kellogg’s brands, including Famous Amos; so to be honest, it looks like Mother’s has been bought and sold at least once before. This latest move is just another accounting maneuver.

And that is a shame. Oakland could use a bit more of Italy within its borders. I was saddened to see that the gondola service that plies the city’s Lake Merritt, was for sale. If you have $300,000 and can sing, it might be your opportunity for self-employment. Included in the deal are three authentic Venetian gondolas and all of the other equipment and storage you would need to run a successful operation. And because it has been a going concern for the past 20 years, you wouldn’t exactly be taking a leap into the dark; it is very popular, as is everything else Italian, often to an unwarranted, embarrassing and expensive degree. I suppose the Bay Area’s tech workers need to spend their money on something, so why not on gondola rides.

I do wish these kinds of international corporate takeovers, such as Ferrero buying Mother’s, actually did promise more cultural influence than they do, but I am afraid it never works out that way. As I remember, Mother’s cookies are very sweet with little else in terms of flavor, especially the animal crackers, which are coated in icing, and I don’t expect them to be replaced by lovely little biscotti anytime soon.

I am just not sure what the connection between economy and culture is anymore. Is working in an Italian cookie factory any different from working in an American one? Will the parking lot suddenly be filled with Fiats? Will the cafeteria, if there is one, start serving espresso? Will the uniforms be more stylish? (Sorry Alitalia, Singapore and Emirates have you got you beat on this score by a mile).

And it is too bad. You would think that one of the benefits of globalization would be that local places would become more cosmopolitan, or at least more pleasantly so, replacing inferior local goods and practices with superior global ones. But I imagine that Ferrero’s purchase of Mother’s will not be in anyway noticeable, neither on the factory floor nor in the supermarket aisle. Somehow, local geography does a pretty good job of turning foreign phenomena into local ones.

Take friarielli, for example. Just yesterday I bought a bunch in a supermarket in the small town in Puglia where I currently live. It is known as broccoli rabe in the United States, but to be honest the American version looks like friarielli on steroids, as you might have guessed. The friarielli that I bought in the market in Puglia consisted of large leaves on long stalks, with a small budding head in the center, all of it edible. I imagine that the American farming industry took one look at that and realized that Americans would never buy a bunch of stalks and leaves, so they developed a variety that looks much more like regular broccoli, with a big head and few if any stalks and leaves.

The problem is that, as is so often the case, broccoli rabe looks great but does not have the same complex flavor that friarielli has. This of course is the curse that afflicts nearly all produce in California: it is beautiful to look at but it has no flavor. It was developed principally to meet the needs of shippers. California navel oranges are infamously dry and therefore lousy to eat, but I am sure the lack of juice makes them much lighter and therefore less expensive to transport.

In a way, I suppose I should be happy about the cultural neutrality of global capital. Apparently, this was a feature of Italian colonialism. The cultural insularity of Italian colonizers in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 20th century rendered their interventions slightly less damaging than those of other colonizing nations, because they were more interested in making more Italy in Africa, rather than pursuing extractive economic activities, as was more the case with the British, or exercising religious projects, as was more the case with the Spanish.

Clearly the 21st century global industrial project is different from the 20th century colonial one, but I somehow wish Ferrero would maybe go out on a limb and try to nudge American culture in another direction, at least where cookies are concerned. Maybe they could introduce a new line, Mamma’s, that could include brutti ma buoni in its line up. But knowing the all consuming strength of the growth imperative of capitalism, even in the sweet and tasty snack sector, I hold little hope that a corporate giant such as Ferrero will privilege taste over profit.

Oddly enough, Ferrero either did not attempt to acquire, or was unable to acquire, Kellogg’s line of cereals, such as Cornflakes, possibly because it was not for sale. I have not eaten a bowl of Cornflakes in over forty years, let alone a Mother’s cookie, but it is nice to know that at least some of the products from my overly industrialized and commercialized youth remain in American hands.