The story of William A. Turnier, the man who designed the Oreo cookie | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The story of William A. Turnier, the man who designed the Oreo cookie 

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Patterned pastries are common. In The Atlantic, Twilley unpacks the centuries-old history of cookie embossing, calling it "both pragmatic and decorative." She explains how piercing pastry—known as "docking"—helps bake cookies and crackers crisply and evenly. Initially a somewhat slow, hand-punched process, industrial cookie design took off after the 1890s with the development of a machine that could cut and decorate 80 biscuits in a mere minute. But Twilley says it wasn't until the 1920s, with the introduction of the mechanized rotary molder—a device akin to a souped-up rolling pin covered in stamps—that the "true golden age of biscuit engineering" began.

During the manufactured cookie's boom in the early 1920s, Turnier was making rounds in the Nabisco factory as part of the mail team. It was a job that introduced him to employees throughout the factory, including the people who worked on designing Nabisco's various products. They became Turnier's closest colleagues. As Bill Turnier put its, "The guys in the engineering department were nice to him. They would sort of let him come around and teach him stuff about drafting. He started doing that. And he went to some schools at night and got the equivalent of a high school degree."

Turnier eventually traded letters for blueprints, moving up the ranks to become a member of the engineering department. Once there, Bill Turnier says his father put his touch on some of Nabisco's better-known products. He created the waffled pattern on the peanut butter snack sandwich known as the Nutter Butter, which launched in 1969, and a delicate, vine-like design on the creamy Cameo cookie, which debuted in 1954. Bill Turnier believes that his father also tweaked the classic, buttery Ritz, added grass to the bottom of one of Nabisco's Barnum animal crackers, and—to many a dog's delight—worked on the Milk-Bone. The latter, Bill Turnier proudly notes, bears his father's distinct penmanship. "I can be walking down the dog food aisle and choke up," he says.

But of all of those designs—of all cookies, for that matter—none is as scrutinized or respected as the Oreo. There have been similar, but less successful cookies. Four years before the Oreo, Sunshine Bakeries introduced the Hydrox, a chocolate and cream sandwich snack. But as architecture critic Goldberger explains, its design was "at once more crude and delicate than the Oreo," featuring a ring of bubbly flowers. The Oreo, writes Goldberger, "is the more American-looking of the two," juxtaposing "homelike decoration with an American love of machinery." And it's in that mix, he says, that there "lies a triumph of design."

Like the cookie itself, the Oreo's emboss can be divided into component parts. People have attempted to decipher the images like hieroglyphs. "Could Nabisco's icon—an antenna-topped oval at the center of the cookie—represent a European character for quality, or is it the Knights Templar's Cross of Lorraine?" asks Twilley. Or is the flower-like design "a schematic drawing of a four-leaf clover or—cue the cliffhanger music from Jaws—the cross patteé, also associated with the Knights Templar, as well as with the German military and today's Freemasons?"

"I read something on the Internet about some speculation about Masonic designs, et cetera," Bill Turnier told me. "But my father was not a Mason. His father was, but he had no big enthusiasm for it. Some of this Masonic stuff, I can't imagine the people who get into that and the numerological significance."

Nonetheless, cookie enthusiasts and numerologists often called his father. "Someone wanted to know the significance of there being 90 notches around the edge," Bill Turnier says. "I think there's 90, and my dad's like, 'I don't know, is that how many there are? I bet I put my compass down and kicked every fourth degree.'"

Bill Turnier recalls that his father also fielded complaints about the four-leafed flower. "Somebody called him up when he was 65 and said there were no flowers with four petals on them. My dad couldn't care." (There are, for the record, plenty of flowers, including the Western Wallflower and varieties of primroses, which bear four petals.)

Turnier's ties to other cookies remain more obscure, mentioned little, if it all, in written histories and spurring few calls from curious fans. As manufactured cookies go, the Oreo's popularity in taste and design reigns supreme.

Turnier himself preferred the simple Oreo to other snack sandwiches. But Turnier didn't eat many cookies. "We'd ask, 'Do you want a cookie, Dad? How many do you want?' The answer was always 'one.'" In this way, Bill Turnier says, his father was a typical engineer—very "measured."

"He'd sit there for awhile and eventually have another," Bill Turnier says. But his father had no obvious ritual tied to eating the cookie. "He would just take them and bite them."

Bill Turnier admits he now eats the Oreo in a similar way. "I just take some bites out of [the cookie]," he says. As a child, however, he attempted to drag out the process of eating an Oreo as long as possible. "I liked to crack them open and scrape my teeth on the stuff and then you'd have these two chocolate cookies. They would last you an eternity that way rather than taking bites out of them."

It seems probable, however, that the ritual was more for fun. In the Turnier family, there was no real need to stretch out the eating of a cookie. They were abundant. "We used to get extra broken cookies," Bill Turnier recalls. "My dad would go in and get this enormous bag of [them]. So we never lacked for cookies," he says. "It's kind of amazing we all didn't become grossly overweight."

Over its lifetime, the classic Oreo has spawned a ragbag of related products, like the dense double-stuffed cookie—an Oreo look-alike with cake-made wafers, and mint, vanilla or peanut butter fillings—or original Oreos draped in fudge. There are bite-size Oreos, ghost-stamped wafers for Halloween with orange cream, and premade Oreo-based piecrusts and ice cream cones. But Turnier stayed loyal to the plain, original cookie, eschewing vanilla and gussied-up flavors. "He didn't think it was too cool," Bill Turnier says.

In 1973, Turnier retired from Nabisco. Seven years later, he left New Jersey with his wife and relocated to Salt Lake City, where he spent time gardening and became an avid fan of the Utah Jazz. His history with the Oreo, however, followed him west. A brother-in-law publicized Turnier's relationship with the cookie. "They were doing some contest about Oreos and [my brother-in-law] said, 'You ought to get the designer. He lives right here.' So they got him, and somebody found out about it at Fox [News]," Bill Turnier explains.

Turnier's most significant call, however, came from Nabisco itself. According to Bill Turnier, the company needed his father's help to confirm aspects of the Oreo's design in order to build a lawsuit against a company making a copycat cookie in Trinidad and Tobago. It was at this time that Turnier was presented with a copy of the cookie's original blueprint, the one that now hangs in his home. But the only thing Kraft Foods Corporate Archives will validate about Turnier is his role as a design engineer and his receipt of a Suggestion Award in 1972 for an idea that increased the production of Nilla Wafers on company machinery by 13 percent.

Throughout his career, Turnier carried such creativity home with him, keeping a camera close by to snap family pictures and landscapes. He prided himself on setting up elaborate trick shots. But it wasn't an artistic life that he wished to pursue. "He was always disappointed that he never got a college education," Bill Turnier explains. "He always thought that the world would have been his apple if he'd had [a college degree]. He said he could have gone elsewhere. He could have done something else."

However, Bill Turnier never heard his father explicitly state that he would have rather done anything but work for Nabisco. He believes that on balance, his dad was a happy man with a beautiful wife and three children. And Turnier had a job—one that didn't make him rich (Nabisco didn't pay him royalties for his designs) but that enabled him to provide for his family.

Turnier, who died in 2004, encouraged his children to get the education that he'd wished for himself. And though a young Bill Turnier spent summers in New York loading trucks and cleaning equipment for Nabisco, he eventually fulfilled his father's wish, earning degrees from Fordham University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia. After graduating from law school at the latter, he took a job at New York's venerable Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the second-oldest firm in the nation.

Bill Turnier eventually left New York for Chapel Hill. He claims to have no artistic talent, but he definitely has his father's knack for detail. For more than 30 years, he has taught tax law at UNC, which he loves, but admits is tedious at times. "Every once in a while when things are getting boring or something, I'll tell them about the dollar sign and where that came from," he says of his classes. "It doesn't come like you used to think, from Scrooge McDuck with a U and an S on it from the Donald Duck cartoons."

And for times that get really drab, Bill Turnier pulls out another line: My father drew the Oreo.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A monster of a cookie."

More by Emily Wallace

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