You've probably taken the time to work your way to the creamy center of an Oreo. But have you even considered making your way to the sweet promise of the cookie industry? Maybe it's time you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

The 1997 U.S. Economic Census depicts the cookie- and cracker-manufacturing industry as a bustling arena with 380 different players and more than 43,000 employees producing nearly $10 billion in annual shipments. More recent forecasts reveal a market that has nearly doubled over the past dozen years.

Yet for all the niche players, two major cookie makers -- Kraft's (NYSE:KFT) Nabisco and Kellogg's (NYSE:K) Keebler -- command more than half the market. The cookie may indeed crumble, but there are crumbs and then there are crumbs.

Dare we begin at the beginning? The announcer takes center ring, cradles the microphone, and belts out the words chocoholics and cookie aficionados long to hear:

Let's get ready to crumble!
From Sesame Street's Cookie Monster to The Rugrats' Angelica, the quest for a chocolate chip cookie is a noble, even life-affirming pursuit. Little wonder kids grow up addicted to the stuff. Chocolate chip cookie dough turns up in some of the most popular ice creams, while the cookies themselves are modeled into everything from candy to breakfast cereal. There's even an urban legend: the Neiman Marcus (NYSE:NMG.A) cookie recipe hoax.

And unbelievably, the chocolate-chip cookie is barely an octogenarian. Young Chip was born in the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts when owner Ruth Wakefield sliced up a Nestle (NQB: NSRGY.PK) chocolate bar and mixed it into a butter-drop cookie recipe. Yes, these were the very first Toll House cookies.

Go, go, Oreo
The notion of sandwiching vanilla creme between a pair of chocolate cookies pre-dates even the Toll House kitchen. Youngsters were introduced to the Oreo by Nabisco back in 1912, after being softened up with its animal crackers a decade earlier.

Tracking chocolate chip cookie consumption is about as possible as eating just one, but we do know that Oreo was the best-selling cookie of the 20th century -- nearly 400 billion sold. Most impressive is that Oreo ruled for decades before introducing such mutations as the 1975 Double Stuf and the seasonal flavored rollouts of the 1990s.

Dusting bakers
So what's your favorite? Oreo? Chocolate chip? Nabisco won't mind. Beyond the old standby Oreo, Kraft's Nabisco, which also peddles Chips Ahoys, is the undisputed leader in all things cookie. According to U.S. Business Reports, Nabisco gobbles a 38% share of the fragmented cookie market. Kellogg's is next with its Keebler elves and respectable 14% share of the market. The company also produces the higher-end Famous Amos cookies.

Oh, and by the way, if you find yourself going "mmm, mmm, good" the next time you bite into a Pepperidge Farm Milano, blame the parent. Pepperidge Farm is owned by none other than Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB). For the record, Pepperidge Farm and privately held Little Debbie take a distant third and fourth in the cookie race.

Put it all together
Our love of cookies is out of the cupboard. Nestle and General Mills' (NYSE:GIS) Pillsbury continue to gobble up space in the refrigerator and freezer with their pre-baked goodies. And odds are your local mall hosts one of the more than 1,300 Mrs. Field's retail stores. OK, they're not the healthiest, but fear not: Mad cookie scientists are dreaming up low-calorie and low-carb alteratives.

Cookies linger in our memories -- and our computers. But more than that, they're big business. General Mills paid just over $10 billion to acquire Pillsbury two years ago. Nabisco's asking price a year earlier was nearly $15 billion along with the assumption of debt.

Making cookies costs money, but you can't beat the free publicity. After all, when Sesame Street teaches toddlers the alphabet and how to count, it's doing far more besides. That round-eyed Cookie Monster approaches his prey, and he echoes the thoughts of every child and parent looking on. Three words say it all: Me want cookie!

Rick Munarriz never met a cookie he didn't bite. His favorite? Brent & Sam's Key Lime White Chocolate Cookies. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.