The aroma wafted across my hometown seven days a week. It insinuated itself into our community, our nostrils and our imaginations. The fragrance came from a factory on a former cornfield about a mile from our house. The site was owned by a company named Nabisco.
That 11-story manufacturing facility opened in 1958, looming over Route 208 in Fair Lawn, N.J., by far the tallest building in town. There, the international food and beverage company produced snacks mainly to excite the sweet tooth. Oreos. Fig Newtons. Lorna Doone. Animal Crackers.
Nabisco was the biggest employer and taxpayer in Fair Lawn. The company gave guided tours of its production processes to elementary schools, complete with free samples. Every Halloween, the kids who knew where Nabisco workers lived gravitated to those front doors to trick or treat.
But now the cookie is crumbling. The 40-acre property was shut down in July 2021, after a 63-year run, leaving 600 employees laid off. Some had put themselves at risk pulling multiple shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others who defied the virus had died.
Unions representing mechanics, electricians, plumbers and others protested the closure to no avail. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Rep. Josh Gottheimer stepped in to try to convince the company to stay.
Throughout my childhood in the 1950s and the 1960s, our town often smelled like a bakery, especially in the simmering heat of summer. The sugary scent that streamed from those industrial ventilators cast a fairy-tale aura over our schools, streets and playgrounds. We half suspected that elves operated the mixers that whipped up the batter and slid the confections into ovens as long as a football field.
How the essence from those goodies perfumed our skies! If the wind blew just right, the bouquet aroused our after-school cravings. “Can you smell that?” my friends and I would ask each other, our heads upturned to catch a whiff.
The decision from the final owner, Mondelez International, to close the Nabisco plant incited outrage from neighboring towns Ridgewood and Glen Rock. The plant had employed Bergen County residents, particularly those from Fair Lawn, for generations. New Jersey has lost an estimated 200,000 manufacturing jobs, either to other states or overseas, over the last two decades.
Last year crews began demolition, dismantling the sign spelling “NABISCO” across the top in giant red letters, and slated the tower for implosion last April. Neighbors held town hall meetings and signed petitions raising concerns about potential contamination risks from the blast.
But then the planned implosion was canceled. The factory is expected to be replaced with a warehouse.
Many of us who happily grew up in our town now feel as if we, too, have won a reprieve. As long as that factory stands, it’s as if we’re all still kids, our parents and grandparents still young, our lives still more future than past.
Throughout, an outpouring of reminiscence has flooded across Facebook. “It was like eating cookies by breathing,” commented Michele Parker. “My brother Gary overdosed on Fig Newtons while working at Nabisco one summer,” said Gail Enid Zimmer.
That’s just what we kids ate back then. It was before we knew better, before the average citizen became an amateur nutritionist, checking labels for ingredients and glucose content. We ate the stuff because it tasted good. The aromatherapy was a bonus.
No wonder we feel as we do. That Nabisco plant — and the aroma from those historic household brands — stamped our town with a special identity. It deepened our pride of place. Animal Crackers, after all, rolled off the assembly line — about 36 million boxes a year by the mid-1960s — nowhere else in the world.
That sweet smell triggered memories that still linger. Even today, those baked goods smell like home. Proust’s madeleine had nothing on us. As it happens, our noses remember better than our eyes, ears, skin or tongues. The olfactory nerve that governs our sense of smell is more directly connected to our brains than any of our other senses. It’s a maestro of memory.
Fair Lawn Mayor Kurt Peluso recently proposed an idea to commemorate the landmark, preserving vestiges of it for posterity. The letters of the “NABISCO” sign would be refurbished and mounted around the town as a permanent legacy on exhibit.
Meantime, the abandoned factory, which hasn’t made a cookie in years, still stands. Like our memories of the fragrance it once emitted, it refuses to disappear.
Brody, a consultant and essayist who now lives in Italy, is author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”