Ruth Wakefield and the Chocolate Chip Cookie

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Ruth Wakefield and the Chocolate Chip Cookie

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(Below is not exactly a transcript of the episode, more like a script that I used.)

Have you heard the story of chocolate chip cookies? Have you heard they were created by accident? That someone was carrying bits of chocolate around a professional kitchen and they tripped and all the chocolate bits fell into a bowl of cookie dough? (This is truly the most common story online about the invention of chocolate chip cookies.) Or that the inventor thought the chocolate bits would melt and be absorbed and make chocolate cookies? Lies. They most certainly were not an accident. 

Chocolate chip cookies are also known as Nestle Toll House cookies. That works, as chocolate chips were invented specifically by Nestle for this cookie, after Ruth Graves Wakefield chopped up a chocolate bar to get the bits at the exact right size.

Wakefield was born in Massachusetts in 1903. She went to college at what is now Framingham State University, getting her degree in Household Arts. (Capital H, capital A - for more information on what majoring in home economics meant in the early 1900s, please refer to my episode with Shauna Sever.) 

Wakefield graduated in 1924, and for six years held various jobs in her chosen industry, working as a dietician in a hospital, teaching home ec at a high school, giving community talks on food, and, for a while, holding the title of director of customer service at a utility company. 

After getting married, she and her husband bought a big, old house and turned it into an inn with a restaurant. They called it Toll House, and they made up a bunch of lies about it that were good for marketing. Here’s the truth: it was built as a private residence in 1817. Here’s what the Wakefields said: it was built in 1709 and was used as an actual toll house, or a way station, if you will.

This story was good for piquing consumer interest, but I imagine the restaurant got as popular as it was based on the food. (When it opened, it had seven tables; by the time the Wakefields retired it contained 60.) Based on old menus and Ruth Wakefield’s cookbook, which contained recipes from the restaurant and of which there were a number of editions, the cuisine at the Toll House was a paragon of mid-19th century American elegance. There were so many “salad rings.” You know, Jell-O (or gelatin) salads, but in shapes. In the book, most of these are in the “Occasions” section.

“Ruth Wakefield’s Tried and True Recipes” is, in addition to a fascinating history piece, one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve read, and certainly the most scientific of any cookbook for a mainstream audience that I’ve come across. (And, for those of you who don’t listen to the Home Economics episode of Smart Mouth, something to remember is that a lot of women who majored in domestic arts chose it because it contained the most science classes of any major that they could practically take. (Even technically co-ed schools weren’t letting women into all the departments in the 1920s.) 

There’s a glossary at the beginning of the cookbook that defines words like dash, pinch, and speck: each of those, she says, is equal to 1/15 teaspoon. One egg is equal to a quarter-cup. There’s pages of this stuff. 

Here are some things I love about the book: there’s a recipe for cornflake cookies. So that’s even earlier than my potato chip cookie recipe from the 1980s, and further proof that no one invented the concept recently. 

There a section on hosting, and Wakefield explains that it used to be the style to serve the hostess last, but now (1930s) she is to be served first, the idea being that if the item is unfamiliar to the guests, they can just watch her to see how to eat. Now that is etiquette. She also advises putting bouquets in the fridge every night to keep them fresh longer, which I will be implementing immediately. 

There are multiple recipes in the book for “California chicken.” What is that, you wonder? Turns out it’s … tuna. Which honestly makes me rethink all of us making fun of Jessica Simpson for getting confused by Chicken of the Sea.

There is also a chapter on first aid. For a patient having what she terms epileptic fits she advises putting a wooden spoon in their mouth and then “let him thrash it out.”

Ruth Wakefield’s Tried and True Recipes” was published in 1931. This first edition did not include chocolate chip cookies, as Wakefield and her assistant baker, Sue Brides, did not invent them until later in the decade.

There is, apparently, an interview Wakefield gave where she talked about how in college she especially loved doing lab experiments with chocolate. I can’t find it, but here’s what I do know: upon hiring, new servers at the Toll House were given a manual that included rules like “cutlery must be placed one thumbprint away from the edge of the table.” The restaurant’s marketing pamphlet said “No military machine or factory production line was ever geared to more smooth-running cohesion. Long-range planning and constantly studied personnel are reflected in an operating teamwork flawless in its unrolled perfection. Confusion is unknown.”

I read an interview with a former waitress who said leftover cookies were bagged up and thrown away every night. One evening Wakefield left early, so the staff ate the cookies. She came back and caught them and deducted the cost of the number of cookies each person ate from their next paychecks.

This precision extended to her recipes, as we learned earlier with her 1/15 of a teaspoon measurements. I know people like to compare variations on chocolate chip cookie recipes, so, here are the original instructions for “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies.”  

“At Toll House we chill this dough overnight. When ready for baking, we roll a teaspoon of dough between palms of hands and place balls two inches apart on greased baking sheet. Then we press balls with finger tips to form flat rounds. This way cookies do not spread as much in the baking and they keep uniformly round.” 

First of all, a teaspoon of dough? She was the picture of restraint. Her recipe was the same as it appears now on bags of chocolate chips, except she dissolved the baking soda in hot water before adding to the wet dough, alternating it with the flour and salt mix.

I used to think that Wakefield made an enormous mistake selling her recipe to Nestle. I think I was wrong. Nestle bought the Toll House trademark - since recipes can’t be copyrighted, if she hadn’t partnered with Nestle, they would have just used the recipe anyway. But with the trademark, Nestle promoted its baking bars and morsels with phrases like “from the famous Toll House Inn at Whitman, Massachusetts” and “in Mrs. Ruth Wakefield’s Cook Book Toll House Tried and True Recipes, on sale at all bookstores.” The cookbook, by the way, was a bestseller. You can find a couple editions online. Infuriatingly, the publisher itself repeated the lie about Wakefield creating the cookies by accident. How dare you, Dover Publications.     

And anyway, since 1983, Nestle has not been allowed to claim rights to the Toll House trademark. It is just a “descriptive term,” like thermos and popsicle. This is fitting. Chocolate chip cookies are for the people. 


Ruth Wakefield's Tried and True Toll House Recipes 

NY Times 


South Shore Living 

The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book 

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