I'm not going to pretend otherwise: Last week when a package arrived full of Girl Scout cookies, I squealed like a schoolgirl, then immediately bragged about my good fortune on various social networks. I wasn't the only one with an outsize reaction: Within 10 minutes, SF Weekly staffers had savagely torn into the boxes in a desperate bid to try every flavor, leaving a trail of cookie crumbs in their wake. For the next two days, I had the most popular desk in the newsroom -- no one walking past could resist snagging one or two, often five or six.
And yet after nibbling on several dozen, I realized an uncomfortable truth: Girl Scout cookies aren't actually that good. Certainly no better than the cookies you find in the supermarket. What causes this halo effect that leads otherwise reasonable adults to act like greedy children in the face of those brightly colored boxes?
I started with the cookies themselves, hoping that close analysis would yield some clue to their popularity. Thin Mints are by far the most popular flavor -- last year, 1.3 million boxes were sold in Northern California alone -- but they're kind of dry and crumbly, though the minty flavor is admittedly refreshing. Samoas have always been my personal favorite -- they're coconutty and chocolately and caramely, but they're also tooth-achingly sweet, and eating more than one made me feel sick to my stomach. Tagalogs are okay, but if I want sugary, low-quality chocolate and peanut butter, I'd rather have a Reese's.
The rest of line is decidedly unimpressive. Trefoils are the most boring of the bunch, and don't have any of the decadent buttery flavor that the "traditional shortbread" description on the box would lead you to expect. Do-si-dos reminded me of the stale, off-brand sandwich cookies my dad used to buy for my elementary school lunches. Same with Savannah Smiles, which had a bright lemon flavor but not much else going for them. And the new cookies were no one's favorite: Thank U Berry Much tasted vaguely medicinal; Dulce de Leche were way too saccharine.
So again, what makes thousands of adults collectively lose their shit every time "Girl Scout cookie season" rolls around?
First, it must have a lot to do with scarcity: If the quantity of something is limited, people want it more. So the fact that you can only get Thin Mints until March 17 -- even if you can make them yourself, even if you can get a reasonable facsimile in the supermarket made by the same bakery -- means that people will stockpile them.
Then there's the nostalgia factor. The Girl Scouts of America have done an admirable job adapting their organization to the times -- cookie booths now accept credit and debit cards; there are badges for things like financial literacy, digital movie-making, and "netiquette" along with the more traditional ones -- but at their heart the Girl Scouts espouse the same values they did for your mother and grandmother. Nearly 60 million women in America today are Girl Scout alumnae, with all the accompanying warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward the organization.
Which must be at the heart of their enduring popularity. The flavor of the cookies themselves is ultimately inconsequential, because as the newly redesigned boxes remind us over and over, Girl Scout cookies are not just about cookies. Selling those $4 boxes "helps girls develop 5 skills that they use throughout their lives: goal-setting, decision-making, money management, people skills, and business ethics." Proceeds from their sale go to funds for the Girl Scouts as well as charitable organizations. You're not just buying dessert: You're buying into a whole vision of modern life.
And at the end of the day, it's hard to say no to an earnest Girl Scout in a uniform, especially one with poise and confidence. Have we bought so many boxes over the years that we've brainwashed ourselves into thinking the cookies are the best things ever, even if they're kind of mediocre? It's quite possible. But on my honor, I will keep buying them just the same.