Also known as: The Packet of Biscuits and The Unwitting Theft
As told by Jon Light...
This isn't a life or death story and I've only heard it once, but it has all the earmarks of an urban legend. It was told to me by a friend of mine who swore it happened to his brother. I think it's kind of cute.
A man was returning home from a business trip and had an hour to kill in the Salt Lake City airport. At that time there was a Mrs. Fields (type) shop there that sold cookies, so he got four of his favorite kind. The clerk placed them in a bag and the man put them on a bench, took off his overcoat and sat down to read his paper.
In a couple of minutes he noticed out of the corner of his eye that an old bag woman who had come inside to get warm sat down on the bench with him. He kept reading his paper, but kept a glancing eye on her because she seemed a little strange.
Before too long, to his amazement he noticed her reach over, take a cookie out of the bag and begin to eat it. Wanting to send her a message but not wanting to make a fuss, he quickly pulled out a cookie himself and ate it so that there wouldn't be any doubt that the cookies belonged to him.
The lady looked at him very strangely, but eventually she pulled out yet another cookie and began eating it.
This was too much for the man, so he glared at her angrily, snatched up the last cookie himself, forcefully wadded up the bag and threw it in the near by trash can. This had the desired effect, and the old woman hurriedly gathered up her things and quickly left.
Soon afterward it was time for him to go to his gate, so he folded his paper, stood up, picked up his overcoat... and found his still untouched bag of cookies on the bench under his coat.
Analysis: When American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand first discussed this legend in his 1984 book The Choking Doberman (new York: W.W. Norton), he referred to it as an "English story" dating from around 1972 or earlier, one he had not yet encountered in the United States. As the above variant set in Salt Lake City shows, by 1999 it was an American story, too. It has also made its way around Europe, Australia, and New Zealand since the 1980s. In a variant reported by Arthur Goldstuck in The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree (London: Penguin Books, 1990), a South African woman traveling in the U.S. mistakenly believes her biscuits are being "purloined" by a black man sitting next to her in a restaurant.
Wherever it may be told, "The Package of Cookies" (or "The Packet of Biscuits") is a cautionary tale about prejudice and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. The supposed thief is usually a member of some minority group, be it a black person, a homeless person, or an immigrant, and the supposed victim most often retaliates in some way that proves personally embarrassing when he or she later discovers there had been no thievery after all.
The tale was famously included in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (New York: Harmony Books, 1984), a novel by Douglas Adams, who was also known to relate it in interviews as if it was something that had happened to him in real life. According to a flurry of news reports in June 2008, a version of the story also turned up in an unfinished manuscript by novelist Ian McEwan, who expressed surprise when audience members recognized it during a public reading.
Sources and further reading:
Writer's Crisp Plot Is Already Bagged
Daily Record, 2 June 2008
Packet of Chips Lands Ian McEwan in Strife
Australian, 3 June 2008
The Choking Doberman
By Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984)
The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree
By Arthur Goldstuck (London: Penguin Books, 1990)