My Cookies, My Life
March 2005
 
After performances, performers don't often go do something fabulous, exciting, and show-bizzy. They generally return to the tour bus or the hotel, watch television, or travel through the night to get to the next gig. It's anything but glamorous, and for chowhoundish performers, it's the most oppressive of torture. Late at night, without your own transportation, it's cursedly hard to find anything to eat, much less anything great. If you're very lucky, unchowhoundish road managers will connect you with a Burger King...and, out of pure stark hunger, you'll accept. If you're slightly less lucky, you won't eat at all.

Night after night during my first tour playing jazz in Spain, we'd return late to hotels on the outskirts of towns and find that room service had ended hours earlier and there was nothing open within walking distance. After long days driving and long nights playing my heart out, I'd go to bed without supper.

I spent many such nights hunkered down with Panizitas, magical Italian cookies sold in certain supermarkets. I loved them; they were simple, but pure. They had an intense corn flavor, but they were so gentle and wholesome that I could eat them for supper without growing sick of them - which is really saying something. They're not cookies, they're a Food Group, a staple. Vitamin P.

I toured Spain several times per year, and on each subsequent trip Panizitas became more difficult to find. Their slots remained in supermarket cookie aisles, but there were never any bags. Once I returned after a three month gap and found two bags squirreled away in a Corte Ingles store - the same two crumpled, expired bags I'd left there on the previous visit. It began to dawn on me that I was the only one in the entire country buying Panizitas.

As Panizitas grew rarer and rarer, I'd spend more and more of my off-hours time running to every store in town in search of them. I became more known among Spain's musicians for this cookie obsession than for my sonorous tone or swinging phrasing. In the end, Panizitas were impossible to find at all. I'd fly in, kiss friends on alternate cheeks, look at them with an expectant, anxious expression, and they'd wag their heads sadly. No, Jim. We couldn't find any Panizitas. We looked everywhere. We don't think they're being imported any more.

Panizitas were just one variety of cookie made by Molino Blanco, a subdivision of Italian food giant Barilla. The other Molino Blanco cookies were awfully good, too. None were showy; they were just the Platonic forms of everyday dip-in-milk cookies. Each had a hook. There were estrellitas de sol, which contained honey, others with lemon cream, still others buttery or with chocolate/hazelnut. Panizitas deal was that they "contained all the goodness of sweet crunchy corn." It's true. And they had corn cobs imprinted right on their round surfaces.

I wondered if these cookies, which had dried up in Spain, might be more widely available in Italy (where the brand's called Mulino Bianco), and started networking toward some transatlantic cookie mules. First was Lisa, the beautiful waitress from Rimini, who'd bring Pannocchie (their Italian name) for me on trips to visit her elderly aunt in NJ (I'd meet her at the airport for the hand-off) or mail me kind care packages. The connection dried up when Lisa found out I wasn't Catholic (I've kicked myself ever since for not offering to convert; I'd still be chomping Pannocchie to this day). Other friends would bring them back from trips (after trying to explain to local friends and grocers why, with the vast range of artisinal Italian foodstuffs, they were filling their suitcases with bags of ordinary supermarket cookies), but eventually Italy, too, ran dry. Panizitas were receding with the inevitability of Pleistocene glaciers, and I was growing panicky.

Every once in a while, a few Mulino Bianco products would trickle into America, mostly for sale in Italian specialty stores. For a while, a few of their cookies put in an appearance - but always the wrong ones; cookies no American would be caught dead with (cocoa-ish chocolate cookies with cheap white frosting?!?). Soon they disappeared.

It was around this time that I became a food writer, and started attending trade shows, where I'd occasionally run into the North American head of Barilla. He lamented that they'd TRIED to bring in Mulino Bianco cookies, but Americans wouldn't buy. I tried desperately, passionately, to make him understand that he'd brought in the WRONG COOKIES. Over the course of a number of trade show and other coincidental meetings (I wasn't stalking him, honest), I guess I lobbied him a bit too often and a bit too intensely. He started dodging me ("oh, man, it's that cookie dude again"). What can I say? Pannocchie were important to me, and I didn't feel they'd gotten the break they deserved.

One still spots errant Mulino Bianco items in NYC. Mostly mean stuff, almost as if to taunt me, like bread sticks or dry toast. I did find Grancereale Classico, amazing granola-ish cookies in a tubular package, at Bedford Cheese Shop (218 Bedford Ave, in mini mall between N4th and N5th, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY; 718-599-7588). But other than that, no cookies. And certainly no Pannocchie/Panizitas.

As always, I searched for them during my recent trip to Canada, to no avail. But Toronto Star food editor Jennifer Bain tracked some down and sent me several bags. Happily, an ill-considered recipe change a few years ago seems to have been reversed; they're hugely corny again. I'm delighted. But I was not at all surprised when Jennifer reported that the supply seems to be drying up. Story of my life.

I'm not sure why I didn't do this sooner, but a month ago I did a web search, and found an outfit in North Carolina selling the entire Mulino Bianco cookie line via the Internet. I hesitated for weeks, out of Charlie Brown-ish reluctance to again be enticed into kicking Lucy's football. I didn't want to order and be told "Oh, we can't seem to get those anymore!"

But this morning I gathered courage and called to check Pannocchie availability. They have them - lots of them! - and they'll be happy to sell them to me.

You can order them here. It's all so miraculous. If you order, try a few other varieties (I especially like the Grancereale Croccante and the elusive Campagnole, but they're all good). But order plenty of Pannocchie; never take for granted a constant, long-term supply.

And remember: these are not flashy cookies. Just real good ones.