The Parable of the Stolen Cookies
If you use Facebook, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the videos of Jay Shetty — perhaps the one that is very vaguely titled “Before You Judge Anyone, Watch This,” which is a parable about airport cookie theft:
The same story was told in another video on Twitter in 2017:
Don't Be So Quick To Judge Others pic.twitter.com/Gt5nZ5z5Cn
— 𝕀𝕊𝕃𝔸𝕄𝕀ℂ 𝔽ℝ𝔼𝔼𝔻𝕆𝕄 🌐 (@islamicfreedom) November 8, 2017
In the video, Shetty narrates a story about a man waiting in an airport with a container of cookies. The man is surprised when a fellow traveler begins eating the cookies, kicking off a tense scenario in which both men eat cookies from the container. When just one cookie is left between the two, the stranger snaps it in half and offers one to the increasingly agitated man.
The incensed traveler is then prompted to board, and lifts his belongings to find that his cookies — which he believed were half eaten by the stranger — are in fact underneath his things. He had been eating another traveler’s cookies all along, while internally branding his table-mate the thief. To add insult to injury, the stranger had graciously offered half of his remaining cookie (or biscuit), only to have his offer rudely accepted by the unwitting hoarder of cookies.
Shetty then launches into a lecture about not judging others, pointing to the patient cookie-sharing traveler as an example of tolerance and kindness. But as many pointed out, the story was a repackaged and ancient urban legend.
How old is the story? It has been retold in media for at least four decades, including a 1996 appearance in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Unsurprisingly, that iteration included the same moralizing angle presented by Shetty in the form of a saccharine poem:
A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see,
That the man beside her, as bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore, to avoid a scene.
She read, munched cookies, and watched the clock,
As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, If I wasn’t so nice, I’d blacken his eye!
With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left, she wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half, as he ate the other. S
he snatched it from him and thought, ‘Oh brother,
This guy has some nerve, and he’s also rude,
Why, he didn’t even show any gratitude!
She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.
She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes!<
If mine are here, she moaned with despair,
Then the others were his and he tried to share!
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief!
A nearly identical version was attributed to author Douglas Adams, who claimed to be the original man hoarding cookies and that it took place in a train station in Cambridge in 1976:
This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.
Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know… But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do aclue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, What am I going to do?
In the end I thought Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.
We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and [sat] back.
A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.
Adams’ version (which he fictionalized in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) was prominent, and has long been described as the origin and first appearance of the legend. However, folklorists have disputed such claims, pointing to prior iterations of the same “stolen biscuit/stolen cookie” legend. A section on the story and its variants appeared in Jan Harold Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends in 2002:
Also called “Sharing by Error,” and known as “The Packet of Biscuits” in England, where the story was first publicized in the 1970s, this legend has many variations, all based on the same essential plot element. The premise of the legend is that someone mistakenly believes that a stranger has started eating his or her food, usually in a train or bus station or an airline terminal. The shared food is often a package of cookies (or biscuits, as they are called in England) but may also be a candy bar (typically a KitKat bar) or even a salad or a main course ordered in a cafeteria. The aggrieved person retaliates in some way before realizing his or her error.
But in Brunvand’s 1984 book The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends, he traces the story’s appearance to 1912, antedating Adams’ anecdote by over half a century. In 2016, folklore Twitter resource @ULTweets shared another version older than Adams’ by at least a year:
A 1975 report of slightly earlier sightings of "The Stolen Biscuits," which predate Douglas Adams's telling … pic.twitter.com/Fe7e1AP4rN
— It's an Urban Legend (@ULTweets) January 16, 2016
In January 2019, @ULTweets shared an interesting take on Adams’ use of the “stolen biscuits” story:
About Douglas Adams and that great “stolen biscuits” anecdote … https://t.co/1l2BYfIZPf
— It's an Urban Legend (@ULTweets) January 16, 2019
And back in 2016, @ULTweets provided context for both 1970s and 1980s retellings, as well as social media rehashes of the tale in a series of sixteen tweets:
1) Earlier this year, @AbuQina reworked a version of "The Stolen Biscuits" (https://t.co/6HDuspDwwx), sending it out in a series of tweets.
— It's an Urban Legend (@ULTweets) September 30, 2016
When Shetty appropriated the “Stolen Biscuits” or “Stolen Cookies” legend in 2018, not only was it not a novel tale (although he did label it as an “old story”), it wasn’t even novel as social media morality sharebait. On Twitter @ULTweets documented various instances of the story circulating on social media, and folklorists have traced the tale back to the early 1900s. It’s possible that the scene authentically played out in that time (see “ostension” for similar cases of legends made manifest in “real life“), but the story was no less an urban legend in any format in which it appeared.