Why Are Animal Crackers So Damn Good?
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
The iconic portrait of childhood goes something like this. Chocolate stained clothes, dirty fingers, gatorade ring around the mouth, and clenched fists gripping a Ziploc bag of animal crackers. Of all the cookies on the market, these zoo-inspired cookies seem to be the most universally loved—by kids and adults of all ages. It makes you stop and think, why are animal crackers so damn good? Turns out, there isn’t just one reason or one special ingredient. Let’s step through the history of animal crackers and then explore why the taste is so unforgettable.
It all began with the Yule Tribe. Between the 6th and 7th century, the Norse Yule Tribe started an annual winter solstice festival. Participants used this as a time to offer their animals as a sacrifice to the gods, but the less fortunate couldn’t afford to spare their livestock. Instead, they baked bread and other goodies in the shape of animals. Boom. Animal crackers, right?
Not exactly. The concept started there, but the animal crackers we know hail from 19th century England. They were born as "animal biscuits", and after the U.S. caught on to their growing popularity, animal crackers were being produced domestically. Fast forward to 1902, when Nabisco took the treats to the next level—putting the cookies in circus themed boxes as a finishing touch. Nabisco modeled the brand off Barnum & Bailey Circus. Although, Barnum actually never received a cut of the profits.
Aside from the name, animal crackers lie somewhere in the middle of the cracker-to-cookie spectrum. The texture is that of a cracker, and the taste is that of a cookie. One might liken them to... biscuits? Seems like they had it right in the first place. The first recipe, featured below, appeared in Secrets of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Trade in 1883:
1 bbl flour
40 lbs sugar
12 oz soda
8 ozs ammonia
6 3/4 gals milk
Fast forward a century, and the ingredients have changed a bit:
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Yellow Corn Flour
Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil
Not as home-grown but the simplicity remains. Nabisco’s other cookies—Oreo and Nutter Butter, to name a couple—have a similar amount of ingredients. Which left me with one last question to understand what makes the taste of animal crackers so different. I picked a few foodies to interview and asked them all the same thing: Describe the taste of animal crackers.
“It’s the sharp snap with a loose interior crumb”
“Muted graham crackers”
“A little dry, a little vanilla, but delish”
“Sweet and crunchy”
“A reminder of childhood”
The consensus seems pretty obvious. It’s the taste of comfort, the joys of nostalgia and childhood. Add into the mix that Shirley Temple endorsed them, and kids are all over it.
Biting into an animal cracker takes you on a trip down memory lane for a few reasons. We throw around the term “nostalgia,” but when we break it down, it’s more than just a reminder of childhood. It means being transported to the past and thinking of it fondly—sometimes even more fondly than the present moment. And it all comes down to brain science.
Smell is closely linked to the memory (your sensory receptor for scent is located right next to the hippocampus, which processes memories). Taste is right next in line. Your memory takes all 5 senses into consideration when replaying events or experiences, but smell and taste come first. Anatomy is simple. (Lies, it took a lot of Googling to understand that.)
If you associated animal crackers with snack time as a kid, your memories will bring you back to a place of happiness and excitement. Maybe animal crackers were an occasional reward for getting your homework done, in which case you’ll associate them with a feeling of accomplishment. Here’s the upshot: If we assume most kids had a positive experience with animal crackers (which, duh, you did), then we can better understand why the happy association carries on into adulthood.
So after the history, the ingredients, and a mini lesson on neuroscience, the verdict is a no-brainer. This snack stands for more than just the fun shapes and tastiness. It's a hallmark of childhood— animal crackers will go down in history as a reminder of how damn good it is to be a kid.