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 candiesa 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 Newtonlike 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 lastat 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 thennothing. 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. Amazinglyalmost disappointinglyit 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 baractually called the Date-Nut Shortbread Bar, he informed meis 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 dosample 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 overkillit's a substantial cookie after allI 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.