A return of a long-gone (but not forgotten favorite)
When Ted Odell ’64 created the first batch of his now-legendary guerrilla cookies in the late 1960s, he likely had no idea that 40 years later they would inspire great nostalgia — and a fervor to reclaim the taste of youth for so many Badgers who attended UW-Madison during tumultuous times.
"The guerrilla cookie is cloaked in the sort of fuzzy mystery that fogs recounting of virtually everything that happened in Madison in the 1960s and 1970s."George Hesselberg '73, Wisconsin State Journal, 2004
If you’re a Badger of another era, you’re wondering: “What’s a guerrilla cookie?”
Earthy, wholesome snacks that pre-dated today’s granola bar, guerilla cookies were ubiquitous among UW students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Named with a nod to anti-establishment, anti-war sentiments of the times, they could be bought in stacks of three at various downtown locations, including the Mifflin Street Co-Op, the Memorial Union and from street vendors.
But for many alumni, guerrilla cookies aren’t just food — they’re part of the collective memory from a time when war protests and police presence on campus were just a part of life.
“You expected the unexpected every day,” says George Hesselberg ’73, a senior reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. “You didn’t just get up and go to class; you had to know how to get around closed streets or whether you could make the two o’clock rally.”
He believes the memory of the guerrilla cookie is about far more than taste: “You felt like you were part of a movement. It’s just what you did, like growing sideburns or not wearing shoes. They gave you an excuse to go to the co-op. They were cool.”
Karen McKim ’75, MA’77 has fond memories of the guerrilla cookie, and blogs about her ongoing attempts to re-create the recipe. She insists the cookies were more than a treat. They were satisfying. Maybe even actually good for you.
“The guerrilla wasn’t particularly sweet, and with so much fiber, it probably kept your blood sugar from shooting up,” McKim says. “My roommates and I lived on North Henry Street and bought our guerrilla cookies in bags at the Triangle Market on State Street. We ate them mostly as meals with yogurt or an apple. I hope I never ate them for more than one meal in a day, but it’s possible.”
Guerrilla cookies were a common recollection among alumni who recently shared memories of campus cuisine with Badger Insider Magazine. These tales of gastro-nostalgia inspired an event at Alumni Weekend 2012 — Madison’s Main Course, Quintessential Cuisine Past and Present — where food samplings included college favorites, as well as best efforts to reconstruct a couple of now-“extinct” foods, including, naturally, guerrilla cookies.
“Rare was the UW-Madison student backpack in 1969 that did not have a pocket lined with the crumbs of a guerrilla cookie.”Wisconsin State Journal
Inspired by the Mifflin Street Co-Op’s 35th anniversary, Hesselberg wrote about the fabled snack in 2004. His Wisconsin State Journal article has become frequently quoted by guerrilla cookie detectives on blogs and online forums.
According to Hesselberg’s research, the cookie began with Mary MacDowell MA’67, who, as a graduate student, modified a recipe on the back of a box of Tiger’s Milk, a protein-rich treat from the era. She and her husband shared anti-war sentiments, and it was he who proposed calling them “guerrilla cookies.” At the time, Ted Odell was living in a car in the garage behind their apartment. He came upon MacDowell baking one day, and he asked for the recipe. He made a few changes and began baking them at Quercus Alba Bakery. The rest is history.
By the 1980s, local bakeries ceased production of guerrilla cookies. Creator Ted Odell moved on. And the legend began to grow, until the protein-packed cookie stacks achieved cult status as the snack of a generation of Badgers.
In 2000, Nature’s Bakery on Williamson Street held a contest to create the G2K, or Guerrilla 2000. A few years later, MacDowell gave her original Tiger’s Milk recipe to the Mifflin Street Co-Op for reproduction, but it was met with disdain by those who cherished their personal recollections of Odell's “original.”
Going straight to the source was no longer an option. Since creating the cookie, Odell had become reluctant to share his recipe. And attempts to reach him were met with rejection and the promise that the recipe – which he said no longer existed in written form – would die with him. In the summer of 2006, a hungry alum provoked Odell's notice when he asked On Wisconsin magazine to investigate the guerilla cookie:
“I have noticed that On Wisconsin takes an interested in unsolved Badger mysteries,” wrote Jim Weis ’75 of Atlanta in a letter to the editor. “Will Leo Burt ever be found? Who really invented fudge-bottom pie? Now, what I really want to know is: What is the recipe for guerrilla cookies?”
Odell responded: "Jim Weis [Letters, Summer 06] “really wants to know” the formula for so-called guerilla cookies.
As their true and only creator (popular journalism to the contrary notwithstanding), I testify under oath: they came into existence and were made in the service of certain principles. To release them into the public domain advantages those who exploit them contrary to principles. (Consumerism is an example of what these principles are not).
Failure is a concept not often found in the pages of On Wisconsin. Despite extraordinary effort at great personal cost, a synthesis of the moral and productive eluded me, to exhaustion. I made many an error. But then, the whole society has taken a false turn, hasn't it?
So with little chance of snagging the original recipe, some have taken to experimenting in their own kitchens. McKim is lead among them, and she’s pieced together at least 80 different versions of the recipe.
A recently discovered ingredients list (saved long ago from a package of guerilla cookies made at Quercus Alba Bakery) has inspired a new attempt at guerilla cookies — they'll be part of the spirit of community and connections at Alumni Weekend.
In the end, the guerrilla cookie will likely remain part of Madison's mythology. But Hesselberg might argue the story is now more epic than the baked cookie itself.
“Everyone remembers it a little differently, whether the cookie had dates or walnuts or coconut, when canola oil was invented,” he explains. “The great thing about writing about mysteries is that sometimes, you expand the mystery. This story will go on.”
What Exactly is Millet Anyway? WAA Web Editor Wendy Krause Hathaway '04 describes diving into an organic baking adventure of her own while researching this story.