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New podcast investigates the Oreo's little-known origins

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A hundred twelve years ago this month, the Oreo was born. Today, it is the best-selling cookie in the world, but few people remember the product that Nabisco, the company behind Oreo, blatantly ripped off. We are talking about Hydrox. Mackenzie Martin of member station KCUR says Hydrox was the original chocolate sandwich cookie. She sets the record straight on the podcast "A People's History Of Kansas City."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF KANSAS CITY")

MACKENZIE MARTIN, BYLINE: When Andrea Broomfield was a little kid, she loved Oreos and hated Hydrox.

ANDREA BROOMFIELD: Hydrox cookies seemed boring.

MARTIN: Andrea is the distinguished author of several books about Kansas City's food history. But back in the day, she didn't know or care that Hydrox was created by a company in her hometown.

BROOMFIELD: The name seemed stupid to us. Hydrox looked like something that my grandmother would eat.

MARTIN: This is, sadly, the way many people remember Hydrox. Hydrox have become the edible embodiment of what it means to be second-best in America, the cheap, certifiably uncool Xerox of an Oreo. Except there's a problem - Hydrox aren't a knockoff. They came first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. Did you know that Hydrox is the original - the original - cream-filled chocolate cookie?

MARTIN: And both of these cookies, Hydrox and Oreo, can be traced back to one man - Jacob Loose. In Kansas City, you'd recognize that name from an iconic park named after him. But long before he became a major philanthropist, Jacob Loose was just an entrepreneur in the dry goods business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Manufactured cookies and crackers started to pop up in America in the late 1800s. That's according to Stella Parks, a food writer and pastry chef.

STELLA PARKS: And so you started seeing, like, Animal Crackers and vanilla wafers.

MARTIN: At that time, Jacob Loose is running a Kansas City cracker company with his brother Joseph, but he wanted more. So in 1890, Jacob hires Adolphus Green, this big-shot lawyer in Chicago, to merge his company with other bakeries across the region. Together, they form the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, and for the next seven years, American Biscuit dukes it out with the other big bakery corporations of the day in what newspapers dub the biscuit war. But by 1897, Jacob Loose is in pretty poor health. He steps back from the company, which leaves Adolphus Green and Joseph Loose in charge.

BROOMFIELD: Joseph was the one who was really interested in the notion of creating a bigger trust...

MARTIN: This is Andrea Broomfield again.

BROOMFIELD: ...Whereas Jacob was not. And since he was sick and convalescing in Europe, he couldn't really do much about what Joseph was doing.

MARTIN: Against Jacob's wishes, the American Biscuit Company merges with its two fiercest competitors, and they form a powerhouse called the National Biscuit Company. Today, you know it as Nabisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now, Jacob Loose is rich and could just retire right here, but he's bitter about the merger/power grab. So in 1902, he announces that he's going after Nabisco himself. His new Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company is pretty small in comparison, though. In order to compete, it needs something innovative to put on the market, something like chocolate. Around the mid- to late 1800s, the food industry makes innovations like cocoa powder and milk chocolate, meaning that something long seen as a delicacy is now suddenly affordable and ready for mass production. The Loose brothers see this trend, and in 1908, they put two crisp, dark chocolate wafers around a layer of sweet vanilla cream, and they call it Hydrox. Stella Parks says it was an immediate hit, especially at soda shops and pharmacies.

PARKS: The Hydrox had this, like, really elaborate laurel wreath, and this really elaborate font.

MARTIN: After four years of Hydrox, Loose-Wiles is doing about one-quarter of the sales as Nabisco. It builds beautiful, sunlit factories in Kansas City and across the country. But that same year, Nabisco unveils its own sandwich cookie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oreo cream sandwich.

PARKS: Not only was Oreo this copycat of Hydrox, it was also built on the back of the company that Jacob had founded himself.

MARTIN: Nabisco, by the way, is now run by Jacob Loose's former colleague, Adolphus Green. Loose-Wiles puts up a fight, though. It helps create the country's first kosher certification program and becomes a favorite of Jewish households. Oreos, on the other hand, were made with lard and weren't certified kosher until 70 years later. But in spite of its best efforts, Hydrox can't catch up. It takes a major blow in the 1950s when Nabisco increases the price of Oreos. Consumers start to see Hydrox as Oreos' less-sweet, budget-friendly, off-brand alternative. And Parks says it doesn't help that Loose-Wiles seems hell-bent on exposing Oreo as an imposter.

PARKS: Once Oreo came out, all the Hydrox advertisements had this really, like, whiny quality to them of like, we're first.

MARTIN: Hydrox also had an inherent branding problem - its name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Hydrox) But you got to remember my name - Hydrox. Hydrox - don't forget.

MARTIN: Hydrox was meant to evoke cleanliness and sunshine, but it majorly backfired.

PARKS: There were lots of other products called Hydrox on the market, from table water to, like, literal bottles of hydrogen peroxide.

MARTIN: As the decades go on, Hydrox gets acquired and tweaked by one company after the other until Kellogg's more or less pulls the plug in 2003, to the disappointment of Hydrox's cult following. But then an unusual company named Leaf Brands acquires the trademark and brings Hydrox back in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hydrox cookies are back, pretty exciting for the few who remember them.

MARTIN: CEO Ellia Kassoff has made a name for himself reviving iconic snacks like Astro Pops and Wacky Wafers.

ELLIA KASSOFF: Look, everyone hates change. If I can slow that down in certain aspects of people's lives, then I've done my job.

MARTIN: Even now, though, Hydrox aren't easy to find. Their biggest seller is Amazon. And around its home town, one of the only reliable stores to buy them is Cracker Barrel. Although when I visited a Cracker Barrel recently, there were only three boxes left.

GINNY NEALE: We have a hard time keeping them in stock. I actually have some at home right now.

MARTIN: Employee Ginny Neale likes to crumble Hydrox on vanilla ice cream, and she only buys Hydrox, never Oreos.

Wow. What's behind your loyalty?

NEALE: I guess for being a kid and liking them so much, and I like to see things come back.

MARTIN: That's also what I heard from Mary Elizabeth Lewis, who grew up in Kansas City. She argues the cookie part of Hydrox is crisper and more chocolatey than Oreo, but there's an emotional appeal, too. Mary Elizabeth remembers eating Hydrox with her mom as a special treat when they could afford it.

MARY ELIZABETH LEWIS: Maybe I'm being far too serious, but a lot of times it's not just the Hydrox cookie, it's the story around it. It's the feeling you get. For me, it means a mother's love and sacrifice. That's where this story lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Mackenzie Martin is the senior producer of "A People's History Of Kansas City." You can hear the full episode about Hydrox cookies at kcur.org/peopleshistory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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