The chocolate-chip cookie celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday this year. Unlike the anonymous inventors of such American staples as the hot dog, the grilled-cheese sandwich, and the milkshake, the creator of the chocolate-chip cookie has always been known to us. Ruth Wakefield, who ran the popular Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, with her husband, Kenneth, from 1930 to 1967, brought the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie into being in the late nineteen-thirties. The recipe, which has been tweaked over the ensuing decades, made its first appearance in print in the 1938 edition of Wakefield’s “Tried and True” cookbook. Created as an accompaniment to ice cream, the chocolate-chip cookie quickly became so celebrated that Marjorie Husted (a.k.a. Betty Crocker) featured it on her radio program. On March 20, 1939, Wakefield gave Nestlé the right to use her cookie recipe and the Toll House name. In a bargain that rivals Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan, the price was a dollar—a dollar that Wakefield later said she never received (though she was reportedly given free chocolate for life and was also paid by Nestlé for work as a consultant).
While we have always known the who, the where, and the when of the chocolate-chip cookie’s origins, the how and the why have remained somewhat obscure. A set of often-repeated creation myths have grown up around the country’s favorite baked good. The most frequently reproduced story is that Wakefield unexpectedly ran out of nuts for a regular ice-cream cookie recipe and, in desperation, replaced them with chunks chopped out of a bar of Nestlé bittersweet chocolate. (A variation of this tale has Wakefield substituting the chips after running out of bakers’ chocolate.) Another even more unlikely story posits that the vibrations from an industrial mixer caused chocolate stored on a shelf in the Toll House kitchen to fall into a vat of cookie dough as it was being mixed.
None of these, it appears, is true. In her recently published “Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book,” the food writer Carolyn Wyman offers a more believable, if somewhat less enchanted, telling. Wyman argues, persuasively, that Wakefield, who had a degree in household arts and a reputation for perfectionism, would not have allowed her restaurant, which was famed for its desserts, to run out of such essential ingredients as bakers’ chocolate or nuts. Rather, the more plausible explanation is that Wakefield developed the chocolate-chip cookie “by dint of training, talent, [and] hard work.” As prepared as she was, though, it is unlikely that the diligent proprietor of the Toll House could have predicted that her combination of butter, flour, sugar, nuts, and chocolate would go on to become an iconic American food, adored by adults and children, creating fortunes and spawning countless imitations and variations.
In the postwar years, the chocolate-chip cookie followed the path taken by many American culinary innovations: from homemade to mass-produced, from kitchen counter to factory floor, from fresh to franchised. In the nineteen-fifties, both Nestlé and Pillsbury began selling refrigerated chocolate-chip-cookie dough in supermarkets. Nabisco, meanwhile, launched Chips Ahoy, its line of packaged cookies, in 1963. The Baby Boom generation, which had been raised on the Toll House cookie, sought to recapture the original taste of these homemade treats in stores that sold fresh-baked cookies. Famous Amos, Mrs. Fields, and David’s Cookies all opened their first stores in the seventies, and prospered in the eighties. By the middle of that decade, there were more than twelve hundred cookie stands in business across the country.
The story of Wally (Famous) Amos suggests that there might be something more than a homonymical relationship between “cookie” and “kooky.” A talent agent at William Morris who signed Simon and Garfunkel and represented the Supremes and Dionne Warwick, Amos decided to get into the food business after a high-profile client, Hugh Masekela, dumped him as an agent and another client, an actor, fractured his leg just before shooting a movie that promised to launch his career. Amos set up his first cookie stand on Sunset Boulevard in 1975 with funding from Marvin Gaye, among others. Unable to dig up the hard facts of the chocolate-chip cookie’s origins, an associate of Amos’s dreamed up some information to print on his store’s bags: the cookie was born “in a tiny farmhouse kitchen in Lowell, Massachusetts,” on what “has come to be known as Brown Thursday.” Amos, who dressed in a Panama hat and embroidered shirt and adopted the salutation “Have a very brown day,” admits that he was a more successful pitchman than he was a businessman or pastry chef. He may have found his way to the cover of Time magazine, but between 1985 and 1989 ownership of Famous Amos changed hands four times, leaving Wally Amos with less and less of a stake in the company that he started. (Like Amos, Debbie Fields and David Liederman no longer own the businesses that bear their names, though all three remain active in the cookie business.)
Meanwhile, the chocolate-chip cookie, the tribble of American baked goods, kept reproducing itself in copious and unexpected ways. There came the Chipwich, the Taste of Nature Cookie Dough Bite, and the Pookie (a pie coated with chocolate-chip-cookie dough). Perhaps none of these variations was more culinarily or culturally significant than the début, in 1984, of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream at their Burlington, Vermont, store. The idea came from an anonymous note left by a customer and was soon in high demand in their neighboring outlets. It took Ben & Jerry’s five years to find a way to mechanize the process of hand-mixing the frozen cookie dough with the ice cream, but it proved profitable. By 1991, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough replaced Heath Bar Crunch as the company’s bestselling product. Two decades later, it is still among Ben & Jerry’s favorites.
Needless to say, reading about all of this got me hankering for some chocolate-chip cookies. My mother, who went on to become a pastry chef, often made cookies from scratch during my childhood, but lately, like many Americans, I have come to rely on Pepperidge Farms and Costco to do my baking for me. Wyman’s book sent me back into the kitchen, where I baked several batches of chocolate-chip cookies from scratch while writing this post. There’s no doubt that time and a modicum of elbow grease are required to make cookies: it’s harder than brewing a pot of coffee (unless you’re Kelefa Sanneh) but easier, say, than making a bouillabaisse. For the most part, I stuck with the classic recipe printed on the back of the Nestlé package, but I benefited from having read David Leite’s 2008 Times article on baking the perfect cookie. Leite advocated baking larger cookies than Wakefield’s in order to produce a more appealing variety of textures. And while it kills spontaneity, his suggestion, gleaned from professional chefs, of letting the dough cool in a refrigerator for thirty-six hours before baking, is an invaluable one.
There are, of course, hundreds of other recipes I could have used. (Wyman prints some seventy-five in her thorough and entertaining book.) The beauty of the chocolate-chip cookie—and no small part of its enduring popularity—is its fungibility. You can make it with shortening, margarine, or butter; you can make big cookies or small cookies; you can use pecans or walnuts or M. & M.’s or peanut butter; you can use more brown sugar or less; you can swap in corn syrup or molasses; add an extra egg or substitute water for milk; you can use luxury brands of sea salt and caramel and extremely expensive hand-made chocolate or the generic brands available in your local supermarket. It doesn’t matter. What comes out will still be recognizable as a chocolate-chip cookie and, most likely, it will taste good. It will go well with milk, sure, and coffee and tea, but I’m here to tell you that it will also taste great with red wine or whiskey. It seems that the only thing you can’t do to a cookie, as Malcolm Gladwell discovered in 2005, is make it healthy. In its ability to absorb such a heterogeneous list of ingredients and still retain its identity and appeal, the chocolate-chip cookie is representative of the aspirations of the country for which it has become the preferred treat.
Eating my cookies, I thought about Ruth Wakefield’s disinclination to discuss her most famous creation later in life. Nowadays, we’d expect the inventor of such an iconic bit of Americana to publish an autobiography and make regular appearances on the Food Network, but Wakefield didn’t grandstand. A Toll House neighbor suggested to Wyman that Wakefield had “moved on,” especially after she and her husband sold the restaurant, in 1967. (Wakefield died in 1977.) Wyman thinks it is possible that Wakefield, a successful businesswoman and cookbook author, didn’t want her other achievements to be overshadowed by her celebrated cookie which, after all, had been invented merely as an accompaniment for ice cream. Wakefield’s pecan rolls, Boston cream pie, and Indian pudding were enormously popular before being supplanted by the Toll House cookie. There are numerous other desserts from her “Tried and True” cookbook that are probably worth a second look, and during the holidays I aim to give a couple of them a shot.
The Toll House restaurant burned decrease spectacularly on New Year’s Eve in 1984 and the spot is now home with a Wendy’s. The authorities in Whitman required the fast-food restaurant include a small museum to Wakefield and the Toll House on its areas. Next time you’re on the street between Boston and New Bedford, drop in and have a look. But, whatever you do, don’t obtain a cookie. Instead, bake a batch from scratch after you get home.