Ariel Linet has a weakness for Double Stuf Oreos.
“Not even Single Stuf or a freakish Easter Oreo,” she admits. “It all goes back to my mom.”
As a child growing up in Acton, Linet remembers her mother hiding Double Stuf Oreos in her closet, far from the prying eyes of her children and au pair. Despite being a pediatrician, Susan Linet was “a junk food junkie,” recalls her daughter.
The elder Linet later suffered from multiple sclerosis. It didn’t stop her from getting her cookie fix, though. Instead, she simply dispatched her daughter to Roche Bros. supermarket to snag the bounty.
“She could drive, but only with hand controls on her car and with crutches. She’d wait while I would go in and buy Oreos. The cashier would say, ‘Does your mother know you’re buying this?’ I’d say, ‘I’m buying this for my mom!’ ” Linet says, laughing. “They never believed me.”
On days when she was responsible for classroom snacks, her mother would even send Ariel to school with Oreos, taking care to scrape off the lettering so they appeared homemade.
Susan Linet has passed away, but Ariel continues the tradition. Recently, her husband brought her a party-size pack of the treat at Target. She’s trying to eat better, so they’re currently sitting on a high shelf, hidden from sight — an echo of the past. But, sooner or later, she’ll indulge.
“It makes me feel euphoric. There’s nothing better than a Double Stuf Oreo,” she admits.
Boston’s Anne Lower, meanwhile, will only eat Duke’s mayonnaise. No other brand will do. The condiment was a staple growing up in Georgia.
“I grew up in a mayonnaise-y house. My mom wasn’t the best cook, but she made the best sandwiches,” Lower says. “You haven’t lived until you’ve had a tomato sandwich with Duke’s mayonnaise on Sunbeam bread.” (Pepperidge Farm was reserved for guests.)
As an adult, Lower’s mother would ship Duke’s from Georgia — “tangy, creamy, with a good mouthfeel” — along with Logan Turnpike Mill grits and fresh pecans, sometimes in batches of six at a time. Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease now, so the shipments have ceased.
“But you can still get it on Amazon,” says Lower. “The older I get, I’d much rather wait to get exactly what I want than settle. If we’re out of mayo, we’re out of mayo.”
And Waltham’s Steve Kleinedler will only use French’s mustard. It’s a habit that started as a child, when he squirted it on corn and, yes, on pizza. Dijon, he says, is too “wine-y.” Honey mustard? Too sugary. He might be persuaded to buy generic yellow mustard in a pinch, but really, French’s is the gold standard.
“It’s a vinegar angel. Isn’t that enough?” he asks, quoting a likeminded friend.
I sympathize. I will only use Cains mayonnaise and Howard’s hot pepper relish, both local brands, both easily found in Market Basket’s fluorescent aisles. It’s what I know. More for your dollar. I still remember eating an overly crisped hot dog at my Nana’s kitchen table, elbows on her plastic tablecloth. I must have been 10 or 11, and French’s mustard was about as exotic as I got (sorry, Steve). But my mother had recently branched into taco kits, complete with salsa. Exotic! The relish on the table looked like salsa, and eager to try it, I spooned it atop my dog. It was sticky and tangy and sweet, with jelly-like rivulets dribbling over the bun. I was hooked, and I’ve been a Howard’s customer ever since.
Blame it on the Mere-exposure
effect, says Dr. Traci Mann, who runs the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. This is a psychological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for things mainly because of familiarity. Familiarity might breed contempt, but not when it comes to snacks.
“You like the thing you’ve had. The more you’ve had something, the more you know you like it, and you’ll notice if it’s a little different. You’re more likely to notice slight differences between another brand,” she says.
Plus, the more you eat and enjoy a brand, the more you rely on the promise it delivers, whether it’s the crisp caffeine surge of Diet Coke or the satisfying crunch of Doritos.
“A brand is an emotional experience, and it’s a promise. Whether it’s a tire or a tennis racket or an airline, people associate their connection, allegiance, or affinity to the outcome they expect in a measurable way: ‘Yes, this pain reliever will get rid of my headache. It always has, and it will this time, too,’ ” says brand advisor Michael Fishman.
With a beloved condiment or snack, the stakes are even higher.
“Food is a lot closer to emotions and to love than an airline or a golf ball,” he allows.
This is certainly true for Medford’s Caitlin Cunningham, who will only eat chunky Skippy peanut butter. She estimates that her household has between three to four types of peanut butter at any given time.
She got hooked on Skippy early in life: the large font; the bright, child-friendly packaging. She loved to eat it while playing checkers with her dad or as a snack with crackers — never with jelly, which she didn’t eat until she was an adult. She appreciated its slightly gritty texture and savory taste. It wasn’t cloyingly sweet like all the other brands. But, she says, taste is almost secondary.
“Branding, sentiment, comfort. The actual taste might be almost last. This summarizes what it is to hook someone early,” she says.
Brand loyalty also fuels our own aspirational personas. It has ever since the good old days of simple TV commercials, when choosy moms chose Jif (apologies to Skippy). Social media has amplified the effect. Tagging yourself at a certain restaurant — or consuming a chosen brand — telegraphs an identity.
“[It’s] a way for people to express themselves — to show they’re a good cook, know about a certain category, or are from a certain region. Part of the reason that people love In-N-Out is that it’s scarce. You can only get it on the West Coast,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the author of “Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior.”
Yes, gripping an Animal-style burger between one’s mitts and blasting it on social media says many things: You’re cool enough to know about an LA cult burger chain, for one, and also, you’re in California! Why? Mysterious! Worldly! Did someone option your screenplay?
This is why so many brands market themselves with stories these days to cultivate loyalty — a practice Fishman calls “dimensionalizing.” Recently, McDonald’s rolled out a series of Instagram profiles featuring photos of customers and their personal McDonald’s love story, with people from all walks of life emoting about Happy Meals and long road trips where the Golden Arches were sweet, salty salvation.
“We also like belonging to groups, feeling like we’re not the only one doing something and part of something that is bigger than ourselves,” says Berger. Ah, Big Macs, the great unifier.
Fair enough. My sticky jar of Howard’s relish is more than a slightly obscure condiment. It is also a fine conversation piece. And it really does make me feel like a proud New Englander and maybe a little bit edgily grandmotherly in my relish choices. But what about when nobody’s watching? When it’s just me and my lonely hot dog? It’s about the taste, too, and that’s nostalgia all the way.
“Food has a taste memory,” says Lower, the Duke’s mayonnaise aficionado. “It’s delicious, but it also takes me back, and that’s what counts.”