A tin of Maurice Lenell cookies. | Sun-Times file photo

The pinwheel turns

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Before I came to Chicago, Chicago came to me, in the form of Maurice Lenell cookies. Small, sugary emissaries of the city’s sweet ethnic heritage, marching by the millions from their Harlem Avenue plant, a lingering remnant of the city’s vibrant Swedish community, along with Andersonville and Peterson Avenue.

A remnant fading out of existence now that the brand has been eliminated by owner Consolidated Biscuit of Ohio.

No more almonettes. No more raspberry jelly swirls. No morepinwheels.

There was always more to Maurice Lenell than cookies. The crinkly red paper nest the cookies sat stacked in. The logo, a lucky boy who had somehow found a cookie jar larger than himself and climbed inside. The cookies were all of a size, about a half dollar, came in two dozen varieties.


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Not that the varieties were equal: there was a hierarchy. On the bottom, the Chinese almond — boring. Next, chocolate chip — always a disappointment, never really very chocolaty. Better: the hexagonal cookies topped with coarse red sugar, and the raspberry jelly swirls, with their tongue-pleasing ridges and a glob of red goo that would embed itself in your molar to be picked out with a fingernail.

And the empyrean, the best-selling pinwheel. A dense disc of swirled chocolate and vanilla, with an improbable pink trim.

They spelled cookie “cooky,” “The Maurice Lenell Cooky Co.,” a throwback to its origins: Hans and Gunnar Lenell, who opened their bakery in 1925, and then joined with friend Agaard Billing in 1937 to start the company.The Harlem Avenue plant opened in 1956 (OK, not in Chicago, but Norridge. Close enough).

Speaking of lucky boys, I toured the Lenell factory, though it took some doing. As a card-carrying member of the Division Street Russian Baths, I would take the heat, and one of the sweaty Jewish guys sharing a bench with me one day was Wayne Cohen, whose father bought the company in 1987. Cohen was reluctant to let me visit. Why? I wondered. The machine, he said, for making pinwheels is proprietary. He worried their competitors would learn their secrets.

“How about this,” I suggested. “Don’t show me the pinwheel machine. And I’ll promise not to say anything about it. So between your not showing it to me and my not writing about it, the secret will be safe.”

That worked. So I got to walk through the plant, which closed when Lenell went bankrupt in 2008. Passing happily through puffs of almond, wafts of sugary smells. If you like pinwheels from a box, imagine eating one hot off the line. Bliss.

For years afterward, at Christmas, Lenell would dispatch a four-pound drum of cookies, sometimes several, which, ethical journalist I am, I would either set out in the newsroom, or convey to the local firehouse. It made a grand procession down Halsted Street, me, holding the big drum, my two eager boys skipping after, on our way to make firemen happy.

People are rushing to buy up the remaining cookies, but they’re just postponing the inevitable. A tragic image: spinning the dials of your safe, pulling out that last stack of pinwheels, pressing a stale Chinese almond to your lips, weeping.

Better to let stuff go. It’s the Willis Tower now. Deal with it. If you love Maurice Lenell Cookies, you’ve already had better memories than you’ll get fetishizing the last pinwheels made by some company in Ohio.

Better to end with another sweet Lenell memory. Then we’ll sweep the crumbs into the dust pan of history.

There was an old furnace in the basement of our building, some 1920s relic too big to remove. I told my boys a monster lived there, to keep them away from the place. But I’d occasionally suggest we go down and feed him. I can see us, one boy tremblingly holding out a paper plate containing a couple of Lenell cookies — not all those tins got to the firemen. We’d tiptoe in. A boy would timidly set it down, and as they’d bolt for safety, I would grab the cookies off the plate, jam them into my mouth, and follow.

We’d assemble outside the furnace room.

“OK, now go back,” I’d whisper. “And see if the monster ate the cookies.”

We’d cautiously peek through the doorway, at the bare white plate beside the furnace.

“They’re gone!” a boy would squeal.

Now Maurice Lenell is gone too. But they were here, once, and that’s the important thing.

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