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Culinary Curiosities: The History of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

The humble chocolate chip cookie, a victim of its own popularity, doesn’t get the respect it deserves anymore. You can find them anywhere: Dry, store-bought versions near the stale coffee in the break room, slightly scorched homemade cookies stuffed into paper lunch bags and gooey monster-sized options at the mall. The bad ones are, well, still cookies, but the good ones, warm from the oven and studded with melty chunks of chocolate are a sublime treat. Who invented this American culinary classic?

You can thank Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn near Whitman, Massachusetts.The year was 1938 and Wakefield wanted to replace a popular pecan icebox cookie that she was serving with an ice cream dessert. A fearless and accomplished cook, she was always collecting, creating and perfecting new recipes to serve at her busy restaurant. With the help of her pastry cook, Sue Brides, they baked the first chocolate chip cookies, made with broken pieces of a semisweet Nestlé bar. The “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie” as it was first known, was an immediate success. Wakefield included her recipe for the cookie in a revised edition of her original 1936 cookbook, Toll House Tried and True Recipes.

Many insist that the cookie was created by accident. Some say Wakefield ran out of nuts for her icebox cookies and used chocolate instead. Others claim that vibrations from an industrial mixer knocked chocolate pieces off of a shelf and into a batch of dough. Still others believe Wakefield was rushed while baking and instead of melting chocolate for her cookie dough she tossed in chunks and was surprised by the result. None of these stories are accurate. Wakefield was a trained home economist, dietitian, food lecturer and successful restaurateur. Her inn employed nearly 100 staff and served up to 1,000 customers a day. This was not a woman who left things to chance: She knew exactly what she was doing with those pieces of Nestle chocolate.  

The crisp little cookies, meant as a textural accompaniment to ice cream, began to take off on their own. Betty Crocker (voiced by Marjorie Child Hustad) featured them in one of her radio talks about “Famous Foods from Famous Eating Places” in 1939. Then during World War II, the cookies were sent overseas in care packages. Massachusetts-based soldiers shared their treats and soon their fellow servicemen were writing home asking for the cookies. Now the whole country was looking to bake some of Wakefield’s creation, even if wartime rationing meant chocolate, sugar and butter were in short supply.

The folks over at Nestle quickly approached Wakefield about an endorsement. Wakefield purportedly allowed the company the right to print her recipe and use the “Toll House” name on their chocolate products for one dollar, which, she wryly claimed, she was never paid. It’s said, however, that she was given a lifetime supply of chocolate and was a paid consultant to Nestle for years. The Toll House recipe is still printed on the back of the iconic yellow bag of morsels, but it’s not Wakefield’s original recipe. In 1979 Nestle made some changes, mostly to account for differences in modern flour and baking soda.

Wakefield herself never made a big deal about the chocolate chip cookie. In her day she was well known for many other dishes, like Merrymount Lobster, Oyster Bisque and Sea-Foam Salad Ring (a savory gelatin and seafood creation). Changes in the way we eat have made some of the recipes in Wakefield’s Tried and True cookbook somewhat obsolete.  Gelatin-based salads and heavy cream-based fish dishes aren’t de rigueuranymore. But her desserts are still on point. Mile-High Lemon Pie, Hot Milk Cake and Baba au Rhum? Yes, please. And the chocolate chip cookie?  Always.

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