While I was growing up, my parents were very particular about food, but also quite practical. My father did most of the grocery shopping at our neighborhood Safeway in Washington, D.C., and he often purchased the house brand. At the time, the supermarkets didn’t want to put their own name on most of their in-house products, so they created other brand names. At Safeway, these included Scotch Buy, Townhouse, Empress, and Lucerne. As I recall (despite a massive Google expedition, I haven’t been able to locate an image of the Scotch Buy logo brand on-line—if any one comes across it, please send it to me), part of the logo included a moustachioed-detective-looking guy with a deerstalker hat. This is not exactly a character from whom one expects culinary excellence. Obviously, the marketers were trying to make a point: this brand is for frugal people who don’t care about taste (and don’t get me started on the potentially culturally insensitive reference). Often, there was no difference between the quality of house brands and that of the national brands, but one Scotch Buy product that was a staple of childhood household was not among those products: Scotch Buy sandwich cookies.
My older sister and I were allowed to have two cookies each after dinner and we could pack two cookies for the lunches we made for ourselves—my mother said we could buy hot lunch or make our own. The hot lunches at Hyde Elementary were certainly edible, but by the time I was six, I realized they were pretty gross. Once I started bringing my own lunch, I was painfully aware of my friends’ carefully packed, nicely-balanced, and plentiful lunches. Mine usually consisted of some all-natural, health food store peanut butter (the kind that tears the bread) with jelly spread hastily on a two slices of whole wheat bread (we never had white bread in the house), wrapped in saran wrap (we did not use the sleeker and more expensive zip locks), a piece of fruit, and the afore-mentioned Scotch Buy cookies. They were always chocolate cookies with vanilla cream. I came to loathe these cookies. They were the only kind we had on a regular basis, the only kind that that my Dad ever bought (Pepperidge Farm cookies were purchased for dinner guests or for a special treat). What’s more, they were imitations of national brand cookie, Oreos. So, not only did we have the exact same boring cookie every day, but it wasn’t even the real thing. Even so, my sister, Dina, and I raided these cookies from their out-of-reach place in the cabinet anyway, stealthily climbing up onto the counter and, sneaking more than our allotted two to four per day. I hated these cookies even as I knew they were the best thing we had. I plotted to get them even as I knew deep down that the thrill of sneaking them would not improve their taste.
Dina and I did manage to find one way to jazz up our Scotch Buy sandwich cookie experience. We used to pine away for piñatas, which of course, we never got. The idea of having a colorful animal full of candy, which we could hit as hard as we wanted and for which we would then be rewarded with a brief but intense rainstorm of candy, was thrilling to us. We could scarcely believe that such things actually existed. So, we made do. We made homemade piñatas out of brown paper bags, and yes, Scotch Buy sandwich cookies. We would place the cookies in a brown paper bag, crunch the top of the bag together, and tie some twine around the top tightly. Next, we’d tie the other end of the string to a hook attached to the ceiling of our front porch, and go searching in our front patch of yard for sticks.
Finally, it was fiesta time. Donning a blindfold and having been turned around the requisite three times, we would proceed to beat the bag mercilessly until either it came down or we gave up. When struck, the bag didn’t shake or show any sign of weakness. It just swung apathetically, prompting us to hit it even harder after which it would swing in a full arc and rest on the front porch roof. Then, we would have to get one of my parents or a stranger who happened to be walking by to get it down, or we would climb up on the precarious wooden porch railing, pluck it down ourselves, and continue on with our fantasy. Most of the time, it did not come down at all and after beating it for a while, we would simply give up and take it down, trying to act surprised at the contents. Look! Chocolate Scotch Buy chocolate sandwich cookies with vanilla filling! Only by then they would not be whole (the coveted form of a child’s cookie), but would have been reduced to small chunks and crumbs. I remember feeling disappointed when I looked and it turned out there was no candy, just the same old Scotch Buy cookies in shattered form.
My sister and I somehow imagined that the cookies would be magically transformed and that they would taste better if we dressed them up in our pitiful brown paper bag piñata. We seldom finished the cookies. The string would remain hanging there for months, a reminder of our pathetic endeavor. I often wonder now what people must have thought as they walked down our street and by our house, seeing these little girls beating the crap out of a paper bag hanging from the ceiling of their front porch.