It has been a quiet week in here in La Crosse. Chinese New Year came and went, but since Manyu and Clare were in Taiwan for the holiday, it passed without me celebrating. I have no current events to write about, so maybe it is a good time to finish a story that I started in a blog a month ago.  

The time was fall of 1974. I’d dropped out of college and was working for Pillsbury in Minneapolis. I and ten other dropouts put in six-hour shifts in the basement of the company’s research and development building. Dressed in full doughboy regalia, we were a small crew hired to make a new product that Pillsbury was market testing in select cities across the Midwest. The product was raw cookie dough in a little plastic tub. It looked more like cookie dough made from scratch than the stuff in the sausage-like tubes, and I thought it was a good idea. Depending on the day, we made either sugar, peanut butter, or chocolate chip cookies. 

There were several steps to our cookie-making assembly line. First there were the two “dry” guys. They were in a back room mixing together the dry ingredients. Once they were done, they wheeled out a garbage can-sized container of flour, sugar, dried milk, and dried eggs to the “wet” guy on the main floor. Together the three of them dumped the dry ingredients into a cement mixer. After the dry ingredients had been thoroughly mixed, the wet guy added water and, if appropriate, peanut butter or chocolate chips. After a second mixing, the wet guy fed the finished dough into a corkscrew machine that filled small tubs with dough and sealed the tubs with a clear plastic sheet. These tubs then went onto a conveyer belt where a half dozen workers grabbed them, slapped on lids, and wrapped them in attractive packaging. Now ready for shipping, the last step was to pack the finished product into cardboard boxes and pile the boxes on a pallet to be trucked off to supermarkets in the test cities. 

On most shifts I was the wet person, but one evening both dry guys called in sick. I and one of the crew from the conveyer belt were put in the dry room. We’d never even stepped into the dry room before, but the three recipes (sugar, peanut butter, and chocolate chip) were posted on the wall in giant four-inch letters. How hard could it be?  

After the two of us had mixed together four batches of chocolate chip cookies, the researchers from upstairs came down to the basement in a panic. After two years of development and an advertising campaign that included doughboy commercials aired on local tv, they discovered that their recipe might be flawed. Unbeknownst to the worker bees in the basement, the development guys upstairs had been taking one container of dough from each night’s production and baking cookies to see how the finished product looked and tasted. The batch from that night didn’t work.

I immediately realized that the problem probably was not the recipe, but with the two novices in the dry room. I looked at the chocolate chip recipe, reviewed the steps we had taken, and then asked my coworker, “What is albumen anyway?”  

He didn’t know, and I didn’t know, so we ran into the main room to tell the guys from upstairs that the two of us may have misread the recipe. We quickly learned that albumen is egg white, and we’d been putting in double amounts of powdered egg white and leaving out the yolk. By the time the error had been detected, we’d made and boxed over a thousand pounds of defective cookie dough. 

I’d never been fired from a job before, and it turned out that I wasn’t fired from this one either. Rather than being angry at me, the researchers were elated. They thought all of their hard work had been for naught and were thrilled to find out that their only mistake had been to hire idiots to mix the ingredients. 

In writing this blog, I had to once more track down the definition of albumen. It’s been fifty years since my Pillsbury fiasco, but I still can’t remember whether it’s the white or the yolk.

Steven Simpson