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The Case of the Mysterious Date Bars

By Sadie Stein
February 7, 2007

20070207datenutbig.jpg

I first noticed them at the JollyMart, a block away from my office. There they were, stacked neatly to the right of the register, next to the Japanese gum, the chocolate wafer cookies, the Mozart candies—a pile of what looked like large, plastic-wrapped Fig Newtons.

"What are those?" I asked the counterman as I paid for my yogurt.

"Date bars," he replied.

"Are they good?"

"Never had them; some people like them, though."

I picked one up and paid the dollar, just out of curiosity. I didn't eat it. Instead it sat on my desk for more than a week, when it started to attract bugs and the cleaning woman threw it out.

"Blessed are the blind, for they know not enough to ask why," wrote the French philosopher Joseph Renan. How right he was; after I noticed the date bars, I started to see them everywhere. My local vegetable vendor sold them in flats of four. Ramon Market, on 23rd Street, sold not just the date bars but a whole-wheat version, too. In the course of one week, I counted 40 different vendors. They were always the same: a 2-by-3-inch bar with a tawny crust surrounding a date filling, sold in stacks of two and wrapped in plastic. There were no labels.

"Hey, have you ever noticed those Fig Newton things they sell by the register at delis?" I asked my roommate. She hadn't. I tried friends, coworkers, my parents. No one had ever tried one.

I began to think about the mysterious date bars all the time. Why were they everywhere? Who ate them? And, most intriguing, where did they come from?

"Who makes these?" I asked the man at JollyMart.

He shrugged. "They arrive every week."

"Do you know who makes these date bars?" I asked Helen at my neighborhood deli, trying to sound as if the question had only just popped into my head.

"A company," she said, unhelpfully.

Truly baffled by this time, I decided to devote an entire Saturday to the mystery. I enlisted my brother and made him chauffeur me from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to Coney Island in Brooklyn, to Astoria in Queens, stopping at every bodega and market we passed in my quest for answers.

No one knew. Clerks stared back at me with closed faces and insolent eyes, replying to my increasingly desperate queries with cold hauteur.

"They're stonewalling me!" I said furiously to my brother, as I climbed into the passenger seat outside a bodega somewhere in Queens, where a woman had just given me a barely intelligible "I have no idea."

In my mind, the "Date Bar Mystery" had morphed into a sinister conspiracy in which the owners of Korean markets taunted customers by carrying huge numbers of stale cookies that no one bought. The motives for such a conspiracy were admittedly obscure.

"Maybe they're all props, like the fake sushi in the window of a Japanese restaurant," my brother suggested. "Or maybe drugs are involved."

That night, I posted a query on Chowhound: "I'm wondering if anyone knows anything about those ubiquitous, Fig Newton–like date cookies sold by the registers in delis," I wrote. "Do you eat them? When did they appear? WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?"

My post was met with ominous silence, a fate reserved for only the stupidest and most naive of questions. Duly shamed, I decided to shelve my obsession.

Several months later, I was in a small deli on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn buying some peanut butter when I noticed the obligatory stack of stale date bars by the register. Unable to help myself, I picked one up and flipped it over.

There, on a white adhesive label, was an address: 66 Sixth Avenue.

Electrified, I blew off the rest of the workday and jumped on the F train into Manhattan. At last—at last!—I had discovered the source! I would find the elusive date-bar production company and find peace. As I made my way down lower Sixth Avenue, however, my spirits faltered. It seemed increasingly unlikely that any kind of cookie company should live here, amidst residential high-rises and parking garages. Still, I watched the numbers with mounting anticipation. Perhaps this 66 Sixth Avenue was merely a distributor; at any rate, it would provide me with a clue. Heart pounding, I passed number 70, 68, and then—nothing. What should have been 66 Sixth Avenue was a vacant lot. (A few months later, it's been turned into a sort of public, tree-lined area; right.)

I was distraught.

"It's not like you've ever tried one," my brother said, puzzled.

"That's not the point," I said. "It was one of the great mysteries of our age."

That night, as I walked home in a fog of despondency, the owner of my local deli beckoned me into the store. "Come back in a week," she said furtively. "I'll have the information you're looking for."

I waited impatiently for the day to come. When it did, I was there on the sidewalk before Helen opened her store.

"I have it," she reassured me as she opened the padlock and raised the metal gate.
From behind the counter she produced the top of a white cardboard bakery box, which she'd cut away for me.

It read: "Date Nut Bars. The finest gourmet cookie offered! Made to the exacting standards of our 100-year-old recipe." And, on the side, the jackpot: small red letters that read "Distributed by Awrey Bakeries, LLC, Livonia, MI 48150-1747."

I thanked Helen, bought a large bag of her most expensive apples, and hurried home to Google the bakery at once. Amazingly—almost disappointingly—it had its own website (awrey.com), comprehensive and user-friendly.

As it turns out, Awrey Bakeries is a large distributor of frozen baked goods that's more than 100 years old. Not only did it have nothing to do with drugs; it was like the opposite of drugs. Awrey's director of sales and administration, Charlie Parrish, was friendly and helpful.

The mysterious date bar—actually called the Date-Nut Shortbread Bar, he informed me—is one of the company's oldest cookies and a perennial bestseller. (I didn't reveal that no one I knew had ever bought one.)

"It's hard to describe it to people who've never seen one," he said (don't I know it!). "And unfortunately, we often have to use the comparison of a Fig Newton."

Much of the company's business is for private labels, which explains the date bar's mysteriously anonymous quality, and they are sold by more than 400 different distributors to businesses all over the country. Parrish was vague about exactly when the date-nut shortbread bar became a ubiquitous fixture of urban life—"as long as I've been here"—but did say that the cookie was a survivor. When dates went out of vogue in the 1970s, for instance, its future was in jeopardy ("We tried changing the name, to the Fruit-Nut Bar," Parrish said), but they bounced back and are now so popular that the company is launching a number of variations, including lemon, oatmeal, and a natural, all-butter version.

And there it was.

There was one thing I had yet to do—sample one. So, I went to Helen's market, purchased a round, and sat down to a snack of two bars (which I plated attractively) and a large glass of milk. And, I am happy to report, it was good. The crust is harder and more rugged than that of a Fig Newton, and the filling, while somewhat muted, has a good balance of sweetness. While I found the full serving of two to be overkill—it's a substantial cookie after all—I decided I'd definitely put the no-longer-mysterious-date-bar into the snack rotation. Especially when the all-butter version makes its debut.

I cannot pretend that cracking this case didn't leave me with a certain sense of loss; this obsession, after all, had been my constant companion for almost a year. But I was relieved to be able to walk into a deli without experiencing acute frustration and glad, too, that the Mysterious Date Bar enjoys a steady, if baffling, popularity.


Sadie Stein lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, where she is known for her aggressive glasses. Weekends, she can be found in her shopgirl guise
on Smith Street.

12 Comments

The question remains, who buys and eats these? Serious Eaters, fess up!

Great story, and you gotta love the address, 66 Sixth Avenue. No wonder it's a vacant lot. I had one when I first moved here--it tasted sort of like a fig Newton (I know, not a very original description!)

I live near Livonia Michigan. And though I have had other Awrey bakery items, I have never seen the fig bar here in Michigan. But I will start looking for them and report back!

Brava, Sadie! What a relief -- I've been wondering the same thing for the year since I first discovered these mysteries, only I don't have your level of perseverence. My search ended when the first deli worker said, "I don't know." In answer to the big question, I do eat these fairly often, though it's usually the whole wheat variety. That cookie doesn't seem to be filled with dates, though -- more like raspberry jam.

I buy them and eat them! it's a cheap snack in a fix in the city, and they're in every deli, and they're reliable. I can count on one for an hour of energy, to stave off the pangs before dinner.

THANK YOU!!! I grew up in NYC and these have been next to the register of every deli and bodega I've ever been to!

I have eaten them, and I really like them!

I've never been able to work up the nerve to have one, but I will now! The all-butter version sounds straight up my alley.

They're not half bad! I had a couple while shooting the cross section shot above (actually, I ate the one in the cross section above), and it was just as Sadie described -- like a Fig Newton, but the cookie is not as squishy and the filling not as cloyingly sweet.

Thanks for looking into this little mystery, Sadie. This was a fun piece to read and edit!

I like to get these sometimes. They're great for a little pick me up that's not too terrible for you. Oddly enough, I've never really wondered where they came from.

I enjoy them every so often with a capuccino

Just bought my first date nut bar last week at the market at Grand Central. I had the same reaction, that they were strange, but gobbled it up immediately. They are great with a hot bev or milk, but a little dry on their own.

Well, don't bother asking the folks at the Grand Central market where they get their date bars - one of my first dead ends!

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