James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

Battle Lines Drawn in Philly’s Cookie Wars

Spiced Wafers in Philadelphia

Like jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween, another black-and-orange tradition arrives each fall in Philadelphia. Spiced wafers from two dueling companies, Ivins and Sweetzels, appear on store shelves in late August.

These curious cookies have rabid local fans, outselling even Oreos throughout their autumn reign. But, come the first signs of peppermint sticks and jolly Saint Nick, which, sadly, increasingly encroaches on the fall season, just as mysteriously as they arrived, they disappear.

Spiced wafers are best compared to ginger snaps, although there are distinct differences. Containing a mix of autumnal spices including ginger, cinnamon, allspice, molasses, and cloves, these tough cookies have a more complex flavor than traditional ginger snaps. The wafers are baked three times longer than most cookie varieties, achieving a hard, but not rock-solid, texture, “born to be dunked.” They are best served alongside another fall favorite, apple cider (preferably from the local Bauman’s Cider Company), with a cold glass of milk, or spicy tea.

Although the cookies are confined to the greater Philly area, including parts of southern New Jersey, there is a fierce rivalry between the brands’ devotees. Sweetzels supporters favor the less spicy, sweeter version, while Ivins fans prefer the longer-lasting kick of allspice, and a cookie lighter on the molasses. But despite their loyal followings, the cookies’ origins are somewhat mysterious.

Sweetzels’ website proudly proclaims that “The Old Black & Orange Magic is Back!” and a “Philadelphia original since 1910!” Sweetzels were originally produced by the Tritzel Baking Company, which was based in the Philly suburb of Landsdale. Along with the cookies (Sweetzels), the company also manufactured potato chips (Chipzels) and Pretzels. Eventually, the company shuttered in 1965, was bought by the Borzillo family, and is now located in Nooristown in Montgomery County.

However, tracking down information on Ivins proved to be more challenging, so I went directly to the source. Danielle D’Elia, Communications & Government Relations Manager for the supermarket chain, Acme Markets, and Nina Borzillo, daughter of Sweetzels owner Robert D. Borzillo, both helped enlighten me.

Public information about Ivins is a little harder to discover, because it’s a proprietary brand of Acme Markets. But it didn’t start out that way.

According to Acme’s company records, Ivins Baking Company was originally located on Broad Street in Philadelphia. They sold their “penny cookies” at Acme Markets for a number of years, until the company closed its doors sometime around the 1960s. Acme Markets quickly swooped in on that opportunity and purchased both the company name and the recipe. Although the spiced wafers are no longer produced in Pennsylvania, they’re sold today at all 178 Acme locations and remain unchanged from the original recipe. (Sweetzels, on the other hand, are sold at most other stores, but not at Acme Markets.)

The wafers are rumored to have come from a German ginger-snap recipe, modified to its current version during the colonial era. Now, they are the essence of autumn in Philadelphia and a staple at tailgating events. Or, as Nina Borzillo prefers, with morning coffee.

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