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.
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.