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A Baker’s Secrets

Why Ted Odell abandoned his cult-favorite cookies

In the annals of food and memory, I know of no story so peculiar as the mysterious disappearance—now more than three decades ago—of the Guerrilla Cookie from the shelves of Midwestern food co-ops. A confection with a cult following, it rose to popularity in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1970s. Then, sometime around 1990, it was gone.

Nobody seemed to know why. Years went by, and the lore and legend around it only grew. Stories began to appear in local news outlets about the search for the original recipe, and about the reclusive baker who was determined to keep it a secret. When a Madison food co-op introduced a new imitation Guerrilla Cookie in 2004, the store got mail orders from around the country. But it made some people angry—it didn’t taste the same. The ersatz product was shortly discontinued. Online discussions bubbled up in the following years, in which people discussed their attempts to recreate the cookie themselves, based on their memories of the ingredients. A woman in Madison set up a blog in 2010, and over two years, she published seventy-eight variations on the imagined recipe, consulting with others about whether there were or were not raisins, and what kind of nuts it had, and whether the white flecks people remembered may have been coconut. The Wisconsin Alumni Association held a culinary event in 2012 featuring fondly remembered foods from Madison’s past. A dining director employed by the university’s Memorial Union brought two versions of his attempt to recreate the Guerrilla Cookie and published one of his recipes on the alumni association site.

I didn’t know about these other efforts at the time, but I had already embarked on my own independent kitchen mission. I was keeping track of my attempts, recording the results of eight batches over the years on pieces of paper I stuck into a recipe binder. I had become hooked on Guerrilla Cookies in my days as a student at the University of Wisconsin. For a while after I left Madison in 1982, a sister who still frequented the food co-ops there would send me a package or two. Then one day she reported they were no longer available. It seemed unacceptable, and it only grew more bothersome as the years went on. For me, the usual Proustian sequence was reversed: I was trying to remember my days in Madison in order to bring back a lost taste. How many times had I meandered through the Memorial Union just so that I could stop at the ice cream counter that kept a large jar of the cookies for sale? I could summon that moment, what it felt like to sit on the expansive steps outside the Union, heavy cookie in hand. With each batch I made, I would chew meditatively—was this it? Was this the exact taste I’m trying to remember? Close sometimes, but not quite.

They were a dense, moist granola cookie. They had a sheen on top and were dark on the bottom. They were called “whole meal” cookies; usually one was enough. They came in a plastic bag of six—or was it four?—and the pale yellow label that I remember was hand-lettered with a couple of drawn asterisks or stars and the admonition: “chew slowly.” Everyone agrees that rolled oats were the main ingredient. I think they contained rolled wheat flakes, but others say cracked wheat. I remember raisins, and shredded coconut, and a mixture of honey and molasses. They were sweet enough to be addictive, but not in the way commercial cookies are, where you eat one and then another and another.

Recently, the alumni association’s website again took up the question “What’s the recipe for the famous guerrilla cookie?” In the chipper style of alumni organization nostalgia, the writer reported, “For Badgers of the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the mere mention of this staple snack evokes memories of a hearty, chewy cookie engineered to fuel the revolutionary student through a full day of class with enough energy for the afternoon rally.” And yet, the recipe was still unknown, and would probably never be known, according to this report. The baker, who was named Ted Odell, had pledged to take the recipe to his grave, and he had died at the age of eighty-one in January of 2021.

I’ve come to accept that the recipe is probably now lost forever. But for many years, I thought I was the one who could crack the mystery. I had carried around one of those yellow labels from the package through many moves after leaving Madison. I remember sticking it into a cookbook. The label would at least give me the ingredients list. But by the time I went looking for it, it was gone. It probably fell out of the book and got swept away. Still, I had another advantage: I had firsthand knowledge of how the cookies were made. I had worked for Ted Odell during a summer in the early years of my college life. I was his baker’s assistant.

Trade Secrets

I didn’t much like Ted at first. He seemed brusque and generally ill at ease around people. He usually worked in gym shorts and a T-shirt, brown socks, and the kind of work boots that in the Midwest are called shitkickers. He was tall and seemed strong, like he’d had a life of physical labor. When I met him, he looked younger than his thirty-eight years, with a boyish cut of tousled blonde hair, small eyes, a thin Roman nose, and a slightly squiggled smile that one only saw in the briefest moments. I got the immediate impression he took himself seriously and expected me to take the work seriously.

I was not, at that point in my life, the kind of worker who would be described as a “go-getter.”

I wrote to a friend that summer that “I can make from $3.00 to $4.00 an hour depending on how much I do.” The “depending” part was because Ted believed pay should be based on productivity; that is, I’d been hired for a piecework job. My role was to take the heavy cookie sheets out of the oven, put them in cooling racks, move to the ones that had already cooled, slide a spatula under each cookie, drop them into plastic bags, insert the yellow label, and close the bag with a twist tie. The more cookies I could bag up, the higher the pay.

The problem for me was that I was not, at that point in my life, the kind of worker who would be described as a “go-getter.” I chafed at pressure to work faster. I’d had a brief stint working on an auto-plant assembly line in Northern Indiana before I got to college and was not good at it. Now, I had Ted glowering at me because I wasn’t working “efficiently.” He would abruptly correct my positioning of cookie sheets, bags, labels. He was trying to get me to eliminate wasted motion. It was Taylorism in the bakery.

And yet at the same time, there were mornings I’d walk into the Quercus Alba bakery, and it would seem like a worker’s paradise. I was reporting for duty three days a week at 8:30 a.m., by which time Ted already had the ovens going. The aroma that hit me upon walking in the door made life seem worth living. He wasn’t just making cookies, he was making huge batches of granola for the food co-ops on his ever-growing list. He had worked out productive systems, apparently with his own ingenuity. There were two large ovens and a hand-cranked cookie machine. For the cookies, he mixed gloppy dough with a shiny shovel in a big concave vat. The dough got poured into the top of the machine, which would drop dollops of cookie dough as it was cranked onto wax paper on wide cookie sheets. It was important to him that I remove the cookies while keeping the wax paper intact; he would then turn the paper over and use the other side.

There was another benefit that I never had on the factory assembly line: Ted had Wisconsin Public Radio on the stereo speakers, usually playing classical music, but in the middle of the day, one of those sonorous-voiced radio hosts would present a “chapter a day” reading of a contemporary novel or memoir. In my memory, Ted would go to an upstairs loft spot and listen as he ate lunch. As I got to know him, I realized how important education was in Ted’s life. I began to sense he had grand ambitions, much grander than being a cookie baker.

Tough Cookie

Something led me back to the bakery the following summer. I wanted to learn more about Ted’s life, now that I was no longer his employee. My own aspirations inclined toward writing, not baking, and I was especially interested in radicals and nonconformists. Madison was full of them—and many were found in the extensive network of cooperatives to whom Ted sold his cookies. Wisconsin itself had a deep history of such radicalism, and a tradition of cooperative economics that had thrived in the early- to mid-1900s among Finnish socialists on the Iron Range to the far north. I must have been thinking I’d write about “the Guerrilla man” because I have notes from that visit.

He told me he was a graduate of Madison West High School; that he’d gone to Harvard and studied physics with a future Nobel prize winner. He had fond memories of being on the rowing team. He became interested in natural foods while in Cambridge. But he returned home to finish his degree at the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in philosophy, graduating in 1964. His grandfather had a cabin out in the Wisconsin woods, and he repaired there, wanting to get away from people, to live like Thoreau. Using a wood-burning stove, he said, he made a nutritional cookie from ingredients he had on his shelves.

In the late 1960s, he sought employment. He remembered taking a job on an assembly line, where he would alleviate tedium by reading a book. He said he decided to see if he could make an income as a baker after he was fired from that job and three others. His younger sister had raved about his whole-grain cookies, so he found a place to start baking at scale. By the end of 1969, the Mifflin Street Co-op agreed to carry the cookies.

The co-op was ground zero of the Madison counterculture. Every year, Mifflin Street hosted a block party, at which the air grew thick with the smell of pot. At the first one, in May of 1969, the district’s young alderman and future Madison mayor, Paul Soglin, was one of many who were arrested when police wielded clubs and tear gas to push dancing students out of the streets. That year, anti-war protests on campus were growing, and student radicals idolized warriors against American empire, like Che Guevara and the resistance forces in Vietnam. When Ted’s baked goods showed up at Mifflin Street, someone at the store put a sign above them branding them Guerrilla Cookies. It linked them forever with Madison’s hippie culture, which endured in the coming decades. Ted was too straitlaced to be a hippie, but he hated the Vietnam War, and he realized the name was in the spirit of the times. It stuck.

I didn’t end up writing his story. There was too much I didn’t comprehend about him. He said he’d only intended to be a baker for two years. By the time we spoke about his life, he had been at it for ten. He seemed terribly burdened by the success of his creation. I didn’t see why; he was making something people loved.

Ted kept going for another decade, and then he finally quit. As far as I can tell, there was no public notice—no newspaper stories noting the closing of his business. The exact date he produced his final batch would be hard to pinpoint. As the years went by, we had fallen out of touch. Still, I started thinking I ought to be able to replicate his recipe myself. I seemed to remember him using whole wheat flour, but also buckwheat flour. He used eggs, I thought, and probably some dry milk, and maybe nutritional yeast. Some kind of nuts. Definitely raisins. But how did he get that distinctive crumbly chewy moistness and a flavor that, for all I knew, depended on a secret ingredient?

In 2012, when the Wisconsin Alumni Association held its culinary event, someone had, in fact, found an old label from a package of cookies, which listed basic ingredients. It was a label that predated the one I remember, with different ingredients than I recall. The discrepancy suggests there was never one fixed recipe, a theory supported by a reader of one of the blogs devoted to the matter of the Guerrilla Cookie: “From 1980 until 1985, I worked at Whole Earth on East Johnson Street and we sold the cookies, both individually and in bags of ten (with rising costs, he had downsized). There was a great uproar when he changed the recipe: he substituted malt syrup for either the sugar or the honey. Many of us swore we’d never eat the cookies again because the taste was so altered. But we ate them anyway.”

The University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine published a letter to the editor in 2006 from a 1975 UW grad who noted that the magazine takes an interest in unsolved campus mysteries. “What I really want to know is: What is the recipe for guerrilla cookies?” he wrote. That triggered a response from Ted Odell himself. In a handwritten response dated August 4, 2006, he wrote: “As their true and only creator (popular journalism to the contrary notwithstanding), I testify under oath: they came into existence and were made in the service of certain principles. To release them into the public domain advantages those who exploit them to contrary purposes.” He added that “consumerism is an example of what those principles are not.”

The timing of Odell’s surfacing was fortuitous. I was planning a trip to Wisconsin. I managed to get his mailing address and sent him a note. Later that month, as he was returning from a trip to northern Wisconsin, we met in Madison and sat on the scenic terrace behind the Memorial Union, looking out on Lake Mendota. It had been twenty-seven years since we’d seen each other.


He appeared in a green patterned shirt and green shorts, with dark socks and running shoes. His blond hair was now mostly white, still in the same rough cut I remembered. He seemed thinner, and his gold-rimmed spectacles, perched on his thin nose, looked too large for his face.

He seemed terribly burdened by the success of his creation.

I learned he was living in the woods again, in his grandfather’s cabin. He had no telephone, no computer, no internet connection. Yet he stayed in touch by mail with friends from elementary school and high school. He spoke about visiting a few of them in Northern Wisconsin. The next year would be the fiftieth reunion for his high school class.

He told me he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer and that he was battling it with dietary means. He believed that excessive dairy foods put men at risk of prostate cancer, and that he’d had too much yogurt and cheese in his diet. Monitoring his PSA levels became part of his routine. “I’m not losing, but I’m not winning,” he said.

We discussed again his days as a baker. He talked about working eighty-hour weeks, supplying granola and cookies to a large cooperative warehouse on Madison’s East Side. The products were distributed from there to stores around the city and to co-ops as far away as Nebraska. It was clear that Ted had no nostalgia at all for those days. He was more interested in talking about history and the writers he admired: Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and his Sand County Almanac. Since I was living in Massachusetts, he urged me to become familiar with Massachusetts-born Nathan Dane, a Harvard graduate who wrote the Northwest Ordinance, which governed the territories of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin before they became states. Dane, the namesake of Wisconsin’s Dane County, had inserted the provision “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” Ted seemed to have a stronger affinity with the nation’s early patriots and dissidents than with 1960s hippies; his business had thrived because of the cooperative movement, but he was drawn to a life as a loner, ever looking backward. At one point he expressed his belief that the country had peaked in the year 1785.

During our meeting, I failed to ask him the key question: What exactly were these “principles” he’d written about that were tied up with the creation of the Guerrilla Cookie? Of course, what I also wanted to know was: Would he share the recipe with a friend who gained his trust? A friend who had no intention of commercializing the recipe but just wanted to recreate a remembered taste?

In our unfolding correspondence and further conversations, it became clear the answer was no. We spoke by phone a month after our visit—he had a prepaid phone card he would use when he went into town. He revealed that he had been in touch with a local baker who was asking him to share the recipe. “In some ways, he’s a kindred spirit,” he said, but he was reluctant to describe the specifics of their negotiations. The conversation turned again to history, and then to technology. Citing Neil Postman, Ted said, “I’m not opposed to technology, I’m opposed to technopoly.” He understood that the convergence of big business with technology was the road to success for all consumer goods and seemed to take pride that he had run his bakery without increasing mechanization. “I attended the Second Luddite Congress, about ten years ago,” he told me. “That was in Ohio. The First Luddite Congress was a bit mythical.” I had no idea what he meant, but later I looked into the neo-Luddites. They had indeed convened at a Quaker meeting hall in Barnesville, Ohio, in 1996.

Recipe for Disaster

A few months after that call, I wrote to Ted to ask if he had made a deal with the local baker. Suspecting that he was too leery of commercialization, I proposed an analogy doomed to fail, since it was from the world of technology. Proponents of open-source software were public-spirited, I wrote. “They are devoted to knowledge and innovation without commercialization.” One could look at most recipes as “open source,” I suggested. Once they are published in a cookbook, we all have the ability to use them and adapt them. He could release his recipe into the public domain, but of course that wouldn’t solve the “intellectual property” quandary: it would be the brand name that had potential value. “Even though we’ve talked about it a little, I still have only a vague notion of how you are thinking about this—of what matters most and why,” I wrote.

When Ted replied, he did not take up the question of recipes as intellectual property, nor did he mention his talks with the local baker. His letters were written on scraps of paper, usually with something photocopied on one side, and his envelopes were full of stray clippings. More than once, he included an op-ed from the October 1961 Wisconsin State Journal by native Madisonian Jenkin Lloyd Jones with the title “Who is tampering with the soul of America?”

“I lead an inefficient existence here,” he wrote in the spring of 2007. He felt an obligation to take care of his “ancestral land,” yet it was exhausting. “I am losing my campaign here at ‘Putnam’ Forest. Oak wilt gains. Garlic mustard is gaining ground. I attacked about 4,000 plants (which could have quickly multiplied to millions). . . . I’m in fatigue from yesterday’s campaign. . . . When we first met I was still in a phase of trying to ‘save the world.’ Here I try to bloom where planted (the former phase being hopeless).” In his usual way of accepting failure while clinging to success, he wrote, “I am sorry that my mission in life did not gain traction—but at least I didn’t sell my soul.”

That August I had another chance to visit Ted. Though he lived deep in the woods, his address was on Golf Course Road in Brodhead, a town thirty-four miles directly south of Madison. Adjacent to his part of the woods was the Decatur Lake Golf Course, which existed because Ted’s grandfather had sold a good part of the seventy-one acres he bought in 1914 from his uncle, the lumber baron Henry Putnam, to developers. We agreed to meet near the golf course’s restaurant.

When I drove into the golf club’s parking lot, Ted was standing under a nearby tree. What a sight he was: he must have looked like a space alien to the local golfers. He wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a message against the gypsy moth and the image of a cartoon caterpillar, and underneath his gym shorts he had on long blue leggings, with heavy socks and sandals. Most strikingly, he wore a pith helmet that supported a veil of mosquito netting draped down to his shoulders.

As we walked down a winding road to his cabin, it became clear why he was dressed that way. I’d never been under such sustained attack from swarms of mosquitoes. He noted a tidy cabin further down the road that belonged to his sister; together, they’d inherited the fourteen acres that remained after the sale to the golf course tycoons. He and his sister didn’t see eye to eye, he commented, nor did he get along with the golfers. When we arrived at Ted’s ramshackle cabin, he told me he’d had to screw up his courage to let me visit because of the state it was in. “I’m a study in defeat, I don’t deny that,” he said.

The house had been a single room cabin when it was moved to this spot, he said, where it had a view of Decatur Lake, which is fed by the Sugar River. All along the foundation he had arranged metal grills, cinder blocks, and stumps in an attempt to prevent woodchucks, raccoons, and mice from getting in. Two small rooms had been added on. One was a screened porch; the other served as his kitchen. There was no refrigerator, just a cooler with ice packs. He showed me the wood-burning stove where he had first made his cookies. By now, it had been more than forty years since that initial batch, a moment that would come to define his life. He had come a long way since the days I first knew him. Seeing him in these haphazard surroundings, it struck me he hadn’t been able to practice Thoreau’s advice to “simplify, simplify.” His flight from convenience had complicated his life.

Just Desserts

We sat in Ted’s cluttered screened porch, continuing to swat at the mosquitoes that had followed us in. I told him I was thinking about oral history—and for the first time with him, I set up a tape recorder. We talked for the full ninety minutes of the tape and then some. He recounted again his employment history, his continuing struggles with prostate cancer, and his inability to tame the land. “Some kind of negativity has happened here,” he said. “Invasive plants, bugs, people. Events like storms and raccoons, vandals attacking the mailbox. There’s no end to it.” He dropped in his usual references to Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi, and this time added a new name: Alex Jones, whose radio show out of Austin, Texas, he picked up from a station in Rockford, Illinois. I was only vaguely aware of Jones’s conspiratorial schtick at that time—and this was well before he became famous for slandering slain schoolchildren—but it was no surprise that a ranting, antigovernment outlier spoke to Ted’s own sense of frustration, suspicion, and defeat.

His business had thrived because of the cooperative movement, but he was drawn to a life as a loner.

He still had not reached an agreement with the local baker who wanted to bring the Guerrilla Cookie back. But for the first time, I got an explanation of what he meant by “certain principles”—or at least the closest thing to an explanation I would ever get. He said he had tried to explain to the baker that he had an idea in 1975 of what he wanted the Quercus Alba bakery to become. He imagined a nutritional center that would educate children about food and about the work that goes into making good food. He looked out at the world and saw people struggling with obesity while others suffered from malnutrition. “To the extent it would generate profits, those profits would be distributed to worthy causes around the planet,” he said. “I wrote this down on one sheet of paper, both sides, and circulated it to about twenty-five people.” He expected support from Madison’s cooperative movement. Instead, the plan was ignored. “One friend said, ‘Oh, that will never work.’”

“That’s when you came along,” he recalled, “and I was just wallowing in grief, and going in circles.” We spoke for a long while after that and eventually came back to the topic of the other baker. “If he could figure out a way to meet my criteria . . .” And then he said something I’d never heard him say.

“I agree that the cookies should be available again.”

“Oh,” I said, confused. “You do?”

He immediately went back to the caveats. “But it’s got to meet the standards. As long as it serves the purpose I tried to articulate, which has been on my mind for more than forty years.” I assumed then that his conditions could not be met by a solitary baker who probably just wanted to produce a whole-meal cookie for a local market, or—who knows?—hoped to reestablish the product and then get bought out by a bigger concern. It would have taken an improbably ambitious group of Shakers or Quakers, perhaps, who shared a vision to set up a nutritional center with a baking operation and an educational program.

The history of natural food in America, in fact, is full of experiments that blended food with spiritual uplift. Granola was popularized in the early 1880s in Battle Creek, Michigan, by Seventh-day Adventists, led by John Harvey Kellogg. The Adventists, devoted vegetarians, passed granola recipes among themselves for generations. In the mid-1960s, an Adventist sold one of these recipes to a health-food company, which branded it Crunchy Granola. By the 1970s, granola was a staple in the counterculture and the cereal was crossing over to mainstream consumers. It was “one of the first health foods that big business coopted,” according to Jonathan Kauffman’s history Hippie Food. The brand called Crunchy Granola faded away, overtaken by competing products from Pet Incorporated and Quaker Oats.

In our conversation, Ted had said, “There isn’t time to go into my theory about God.” But he liked to quote the Shaker motto “hands to work, head to God.” Like the Shakers, he seemed then to have no real strategy to remain relevant to the world around him.

Land of Plenty

We exchanged a few more letters in the next year. “I am under house arrest by mosquito,” he wrote. He included a clipping from a local newspaper with the headline “Help prevent mailbox vandalism.” The paper reminded readers that crimes against the mail and postboxes were a federal offense. Ted had written in pencil of the admonition: “This only encourages them.” He wasn’t being ironic; I came to suspect he had firsthand knowledge of adolescent bullies. I’d learned in our final conversation he grew up fatherless, which he said was one reason he hadn’t learned much about work as a child. In a letter, he described again how he had resolved to further his own studies by performing manual labor. “I tried to phase out of that by the time you met me, while harnessing the ‘power’ of my products to more social causes. I waited for people of my conviction to appear. Time expired.”

During the years I was holding these conversations with Ted, I heard what anyone would hear: the stubbornness, the defensiveness, the way he had become utterly stuck in the slough of despond. In his isolation, he didn’t have the advantage of good counsel. He felt he had failed at something large, and so he refused to succeed at something small. It irked me at the time. Now, as years have passed, I understand why he’d said that he was “a study in defeat.” Part of that defeat is that he lacked the generosity of spirit to release his creation into the public realm, fearing that others would profit from it. At the same time, it suddenly made sense that he cared little for the nostalgic yearnings of some former college students. Catering to them was never his mission in life, nor did he imagine anything fulfilling in being a small-time entrepreneur, assuming his place toward the bottom of the corporate food chain.

In his final years, however, he did get a taste of victory, though it had nothing to do with cookies. In 2017, the Decatur Lake Golf Course went out of business and was put on the market. Ted joined a group of local philanthropists who formed the Southern Wisconsin Land Conservancy and bought the property the following year. The land, which is being restored as oak savannah, prairie, and wetlands, is now the Three Waters Reserve, a conservation area open to the public. Its connection to Ted’s stymied dreams for his bakery may be less tenuous than it initially appears: the Reserve also offers dining that its website describes as “aimed at restoring the connection between food, regenerative farming and healthy ecosystems.” Ted left his own cabin and seven acres to the land conservancy, as did his sister Mary. It’s possible that somewhere in that cabin, he left his secret recipe, or maybe just a few old labels that listed the ingredients of the Guerrilla Cookie. It’s possible to imagine them being made again and offered for sale at the former golf course clubhouse, which is now the Three Waters events center.

That conversation in those woods was the last time I saw Ted Odell. My enduring image is of him standing there in his pith helmet and mosquito netting. He was a natural resister, a stubborn malcontent, but also a cooperator, and a steward for his little corner of the earth. Maybe he was not really a study in defeat so much as a man wholly at odds with success as it is imagined by the entrepreneur, the technologist, the developer, the self-satisfied burgher on the golf course. In the end, he did something that must have brought him great satisfaction: he helped turn a large holding of private property into protected land, reversing nearly a hundred years of profit-taking.