As sure as skeletons are set to dance with black cats, autumn in America arrives with certain iconic flavors.
Pumpkin spice is most ubiquitous from coast to coast: loved, loathed and liable to move markets. Apple is a close runner up—even prettier, though she doesn’t know it—cloaked in caramel or adorned in ruby-red armor. And Halloween candy, vast and varied as it is, still comes in among the most nostalgic, conjuring fog machine memories of flicking Bit-O-Honeys toward the classroom wastepaper basket, trick-or-treating in the McMansion district for full-sized Snickers, or growing up to grouse about how it all lands on store shelves earlier every year.
Hyper-local flavors can be harder to explain. I’m pretty sure that midtown’s Nuts4Nuts carts grow more fragrant the colder it is outside. I believe that the Jerry Thomas Manhattans I make at home as soon as the dew point becomes bearable taste like rich person Thanksgiving. And, back to that old, ubiquitous squash: I know that New York City bodega pumpkin seeds crisp up better than any other at 350 degrees, especially in a walk-up apartment oven.
Mallomars, the 110-year-old ephemeral east coast sweets, split the difference between the personal and the universal more precisely than most. With their attainable exclusivity, nearly unique to “the shadow of The Big Apple,” as their labels read, but ultimately in reach with a little hard work, luck, or entrée to the orbit of the right person, Mallomars are also the flavor most emblematic of fall in New York City.
Established as a cookie and somewhat reminiscent of a petit four, Mallomars’ most obvious ingredient antecedent is the s’more. Like that old campfire—or, more likely in the five boroughs, stovetop—classic, they layer chocolate, graham cracker and their eponymous marshmallow center.
Mallomars are only officially available from the first Monday after Labor Day through March, or whenever their 3 million box run sells out, says brand manager Caitlin Bolmarcich, with 70 percent distributed in the tri-state region. The limited window originally planned to prevent melting is still in place, at least in part, out of tradition.
“It does have pure chocolate in the product,” Bolmarcich says. “Our supply chain started back 110 years ago. We couldn't ship in the summer months, so we waited until things cooled down a bit to have them in market. And even though technology has come a long way in the last 110 years, it's been a really fun consumer element to wait for that September timeframe to come. It’s really created a lot of fun, pent up excitement. So that's kind of why we've kept it that way over the years.”
Bolmarcich was raised on Long Island, well within Mallomars’ predominant geographical range. Even here, she recalls the anticipation of the season, and efforts to stock and store the delicacy for the warmer stretch ahead.
“I grew up in the Mallomars hype as a little kid,” she says. “We would get so excited when we see them on the shelf. And we would hoard them and freeze them.”
“For me, and this is kind of going back to my childhood, it kind of was something sweet to look forward to at the end of summer as you kicked off a fall. We were going back to school, shopping for school supplies, like things like that,” Bolmarcich says.
I came to the cookie a little later in life, though also around the start of a fresh academic semester. Having recently relocated to NYC from Chicago for college, I marveled at the confection to new friends from the area, they as uninterested as I might have been hearing somebody muse about tavern-style pizza, or bars that still allowed smoking indoors. I even reviewed the long-established icon for a class assignment as one of the first bits of food writing I ever did, now lost to an old .edu; surely for the better.
I’ve since kept Mallomars in my home at least half the time that time allows, never endeavoring to freeze them for the creeping, sun-curdling future, but instead, letting them last for just as long as intended, enjoying the incidental benefit of being caught by surprise again and again.
Navigating through my cramped neighborhood grocery store the other day, the season’s first sighting actually gave me pause. A stack of taxi-yellow boxes not even arranged with the constant wafer, biscuit and creme-filled varieties, but rather poised at the end of the aisle like an old friend with a handsome smile. I grabbed one as easily as I’d have picked up any staple.
Back home, as I opened the package, the “pure chocolate” touted on each of its six sides perfumed the air, soon slightly softening under my fingerprints. The culinary achievement that followed was as familiar as it was remarkable. The shell was considerably cocoa-forward, if only glancing at its dark designation, with a satisfying crack in spite of its quickness to soften to the touch. Inside, the buoyant marshmallow’s gentle spring created a giddy juxtaposition, and the grainy, graham-y base added the final of the Mallomars’ trio of triumphant textures.
Its beginnings and present-day East Coast prominence notwithstanding, its appearances in canonically NYC media like When Harry Met Sally aside, and the notion that you can only get a glimpse elsewhere in the nation immaterial, decade after decade, year after year, and season after season, Mallomars always show up, with their hard shells, bit of grit and sweet interior. Which sounds a little like a place I know.