For Christmas, my mom asked me what I wanted from Minnesota that I can’t get in California. Turns out the one thing I really wanted, the thing that symbolizes holidays with the Lexvold clan, was already part of her annual care package:
Bars are such a staple at Lexvold get-togethers that they serve as appetizer, snack, dessert, and post-dessert snack. Every half-hour, when another inch of space opens up in the belly, you get another bar. It’s just how it works.
Considering how versatile and utterly delicious they are, it’s bizarre that bars haven’t yet become a fixture in our prestige-food society. I am convinced that if my mom had Jedi-mind-tricked my dad to give up on dairy farming and instead opened up “Barb’s Bars and Pies,” I’d currently be an heir to a company more valuable than Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels combined. I might weigh 500 pounds, though, so thank you Mom & Dad for deciding that picking rocks in the field in the sweltering summer humidity was a better life than money, butter, and sugar.
So what’s a bar? According to the dictionary, it’s “an amount of food or another substance formed into a regular narrow block.” Could you be any more vague? If we’re going to Power-Rank these things for reasons that remain unclear and under rules subjectively enforced by me, let’s establish a real definition.
I think a key to qualifying as a Bar is that you need layers. There has to be a base, crust-type layer, with either a topping for a 2-layer bar or a “filling” for the 3-layer bar (generally fruit, caramel, and/or chocolate), with some type of top crust, even if it’s just a crumble. Surely there are exceptions to this rule, but that’s the basic idea. This may be easier to understand through the process of elimination.
In case you missed it in the previous paragraph, Cake is not a bar – there’s no bottom crust! Grandma Lexvold may be the original sinner on this front, as her famous “Pumpkin Bars” are really a delicious pumpkin cake covered with cream cheese frosting in a 9×13 pan cut into single-serve squares. I’m sorry, Grandma, your pumpkin cake is fantastic, but without rules, what will separate us from the animals?
The same can be said for any other type of cake masquerading as a bar. Brownies are a tougher call since that’s really the only shape they come in, but they’re a bit too commercial. Plus, since I can make a brownie out of a Betty Crocker box, it can’t be a bar.
Pizza is not a bar. Like Grandma’s Pumpkin “Bars,” my Aunt LaVonne’s Fruit and Vegetable Pizzas are legendary. Cut into nice little rectangles, they’re trying to shoehorn their way into this competition, but c’mon, these things are named “pizza.” My hands are tied.
If you’re crying foul at what seems like a completely arbitrary and capricious ruling, let me tell you a story.
Many years back when I still played beer-league softball, we were playing in a notoriously-intoxicated tournament in the tiny town of Bellechester, Minnesota. A player on the opposing team was too drunk to play, so his team benched him. Slumped on the bench, shirtless and in jeans, cigarette dangling from his lip, he cried out, “Why’d you kick me out the game?!?”
His friend, similarly shirtless but mildly less drunk, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, looked him in the eyes, and with the tenderness of my 115-year-old kindergarten teacher Mrs. Johnston, said: “You kicked yourself out.” Shakespeare was never more poignant.
Sorry, Fruit Pizza. You kicked yourself out.
Alright, so now that I have sufficiently muddled the definition of a bar, let’s get down to business.
BARS POWER RANKINGS
Didn’t make the cut:
Rice Krispie bars. Similar to the Brownie Rule: if I can easily make these things, they can’t own a spot in these prestigious Power Rankings. I love Krispie bars, but they’re like a child’s finger painting going up against Monet.
Chocolate-chip bars. The bane of every true bar’s existence, the Chocolate-chip bar is a cookie impersonating a bar. Why have a thick, bread-y bar that’s always too dry when you can have a much better version in cookie form? The chocolate-chip bar can have better variations, where there’s a solid layer of chocolate in the middle or maybe even some caramel, but the basic point remains: if you’re better as a cookie, you don’t make the cut.
The “Good But Ultimately Forgettable” Tier
10. Rice Krispies Bars with peanut butter and chocolate. I know I ruled out Krispie Bars for being too easy to make. Well, I’ve never made Krispie Bars with peanut butter and a melted chocolate layered over the top, and they’re awesomely addicting, so boom. Top 10. These are like the Ford F150 of bars, so points lost for high commercial availability.
9. Lemon Bars. The first of the fruit bars, the Lemon Bar tastes light and refreshing, even if it still adds a spare tire to your waist. Tart, sweet, and tangy with a delicate crust and powdered sugar sprinkled on top, it’s the Ricky Rubio of bars: flashy and initially exciting, but ultimately you could take it or leave it. Loses points for lack of addictiveness and being somewhat commercial.
The “You Will Gain Weight if you Make These” Tier
8. Twix Bars. A simple yet genius bar made with clearly-defined layers of Club cracker, caramel, and chocolate. Since it’s thin, you can eat five of these before you feel like you’ve over-indulged. The potato chip of bars.
7. Oatmeal Caramel Chocolate Bars. The first bar on the list that uses oatmeal to build a sturdier bottom crust with an additional top oatmeal layer sandwiching chocolate and caramel. Scrumptious and highly underrated, like the value of a great offensive line.
6. Pecan Pie / Baked Nut Bars. Sugar/Butter/Flour crust with a topping of nuts crystallized in a delicious caramel sauce. You could replace the nuts with crickets and it would still be delicious.
5. Special K Bars. I have no idea how my mom makes the peanut butter-caramel(?) ooey gooey bottom of these that is simultaneously it’s greatest feature and biggest weakness, as it’s mouth-watering but tends to harden within a day or two, making it a dental hazard with a short shelf-life. The Randy Moss of bars.
4. Apple Bars. The perfect hand-held apple pie with icing acting as the whipped cream, the sheer lunacy of this bar’s flavor can best be explained by a story about a judge I clerked for.
After passing the bar exam, my first job as a “real” lawyer was clerking for a state court judge in the rural town of Glencoe, 60 miles west of Minneapolis. My mom moved me out to Glencoe, and, as she does, made me a pan of Apple Bars to take to work on my first day. Was it slightly embarrassing as a 25-year old supposed professional to be bringing Mom’s bars to work? Sure, but think of it this way: in fourth grade, if you were one of the kids lucky enough to have a Super Nintendo and Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, did you keep that a secret or invite people to come over and play after school? You weren’t stupid. Mortal Kombat meant popularity.
So I take the massive pan of Apple Bars to the judge’s chambers first thing. I figured I’d get my working orders, give him a bar, and take the rest to the employee break room. We sat down and each had a bar, and then he had another, then another. He leaned forward, re-wrapped the aluminum foil over the pan, and with a sly smile, whispered, “I think we’ll just keep these bars between you and me.”
The next day, the bars were gone.
3. Salted Nut Rolls a/k/a Sharmin Bars. The top Bar in the salty-sweet category, the Salted Nut Roll is a play on Minnesota’s own Pearson Salted Nut Roll (which you may have bought in a hardware store or at Fleet Farm), except it’s far superior to the candy bar. Instead of that weird artificial-tasting white filling in the candy bar, the Sharmin Bar has a thin marshmallow center sandwiched between a buttery-crumb base crust and a thicker, caramel-peanut top crust. My wife loves these so much my mom honorarily named them after her.
The “When In-Season, You Would Kill For These” Tier
What sets the top two bars apart is not just their paralyzing deliciousness, but their seasonal rarity.
2. Rhubarb Bars. If you are tempted to throw your phone at the wall in anger at this ranking, you’ve never had Barb Lexvold’s rhubarb bars. Trust me, I’ve had the variety that has a booger-green stringy filling. That’s rubbish, I agree. But my mom’s rhubarb bars are a revelation. The rhubarb middle layer is a gorgeous cranberry-pomegranate pink-red, has the smooth-yet-sticky consistency of a mixed jam and jelly, and pops with an addictive tartness and sweetness that leaves you scraping the bottom of the scratched-up thirty-year old aluminum pan (the signature of any great bar-maker) they were made in. The key is my mom loads up the rhubarb on the relatively thin oatmeal base, with a light oatmeal crumble on top for texture.
Like a Phoenix, the Rhubarb Bar is spectacular and rarely ripe. The Bo Jackson of bars.
1. Strawberry Bars. There’s really no comparison. Ripe, sweet-and-sour sliced strawberries in a strawberry gelatin on top of a barely-there-but-welcome crust. You will eat half the pan and not blink an eye. The Michael Jordan of bars.
I hope you have the pleasure of sharing delicious bars (or your family’s signature tradition) with family and friends this holiday season. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!