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Nearly everything we think we know about chocolate chips is a lie

The Takeout logo The Takeout 10/9/2018 Aimee Levitt
a close up of food © Photo:HARR120N (iStock), Graphic:Natalie Peeples

Some people would say that there’s no dessert more American than apple pie. This is untrue. For one thing, apple pie was invented in England. For another, baking a good apple pie is a true pain in the ass, involving several hours of blending, chopping, chilling, and rolling, which does not fit in with the great American tradition of convenience.

The true American dessert is the chocolate chip cookie, easy to bake, even easier to consume in mass quantities, and universally beloved. (In a 2002 study by Jane Kauer, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, chocolate chip cookies were found to be one of only four foods acceptable to the pickiest of adult eaters, the others being French fries, fried chicken, and Kraft macaroni and cheese).

The chocolate chip cookie was, according to legend, invented in 1938 by Ruth Wakefield, the cook at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, who either ran out of nuts for her butterscotch drop cookies and substituted a chopped-up Nestlé chocolate bar instead, or who, by sheer dumb luck, accidentally dropped a chocolate bar into the mixing bowl and discovered it improved her cookies immeasurably. In 1941, Nestlé, which already printed Wakefield’s recipe on its packaging, began selling chocolate as pre-chopped morsels in order to save home bakers the time and effort of chopping up chocolate bars. And voila! An American classic!

Except, like so many classic Americanisms—like the myth Columbus “discovered” a whole new continent, or that George Washington was our first president—almost everything we think we know about chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies is a lie. (The first elected president of the United States in Congress, by the way, was John Hanson, who took office in 1781.)

It is a fact that there was a person named Ruth Wakefield who was the chef at the Toll House Inn, which she co-owned with her husband, Kenneth, and she did begin adding chopped chocolate to her butterscotch drop cookies in 1938 and became part of Nestlé’s great marketing campaign. And that’s about it. Even the recipe on the bag isn’t the same as the one she used. The original called for one teaspoon of baking soda to be dissolved in a teaspoon of hot water and for 16 ounces of chocolate, not 12.

a close up of food © Photo:UMeimages (iStock)

As far back as the 1870s, confectionary ads in newspapers featured long lists of their wares to entice prospective customers. These ingredients included Maple Muggets, 5 O’Clock Chats, Cupid Caramels, “Vanella Chips,” Molasses Chips and a full range of chocolate: chocolate wafers, chocolate tiddle-de-winks, chocolate filberts, chocolate silver wafers, Chocolate Ecstacies, Chocolate Acorns, Yale Chocolates, and—yes!—chocolate chips. There are no illustrations of these chocolate chips, so there’s no way to tell how much they resemble the modern-day product, but the fact that they were often listed along with other chocolate confections seems to indicate that they were, in fact, chips of solid chocolate. A correspondent for the Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1887 assured readers that “chocolate chips are always popular among the habitués of Eastern watering places, and for economy and deliciousness there is nothing in the saccharine trade to compare with them.”

By 1909, chocolate chips were being mass-produced; at least, that was when Walter F. Walker of Springfield, Massachusetts, submitted an application to the U.S. Patent Office for a machine that would “[clean] candies, confections, and other materials,” including chocolate chips.

In her excellent, award-winning cookbook Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks uncovers evidence that in the 1870s, Americans were not only eating chocolate chips but also making drop cookies called “jumbles” that were flavored with chips of chocolate; a recipe for chocolate jumbles was widely syndicated throughout American newspapers in 1877. The proportions of flour, sugar, and butter in the jumble dough were remarkably similar to those in Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House recipe. Technically, the 1877 recipe called for “two cupfuls of grated chocolate” and recommended that the cookie dough be “rolled thin.” But Parks, after experimenting with grating chocolate on a 19th-century rasp and following the recipe as written, determined that grating and rolling took so much time and trouble that any self-respecting baker would likely have gone after a block of chocolate with a knife and used a spoon to drop the dough on a baking tray, just like we do with Toll House cookies today. (It’s unclear whether anyone actually bothered to buy chocolate chips for the express purpose of mixing them into chocolate jumbles. But what would have stopped them?) Parks also finds that in the 1920s, some bakers were already selling what they called chocolate chip cookies.

It’s not surprising that, given their murky origins, chocolate cookies continue to provide fodder for all sorts of lies and deceit, or, more charitably, creative marketing copy. Famous Amos cookies, for instance, were said to have been “born in a tiny farmhouse kitchen in Lowell, Massachusetts,” on what “has come to be known as Brown Thursday.” In truth, as culinary historian Carolyn Wyman writes in The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, Wally Amos was a Hollywood talent agent (he’d discovered Simon and Garfunkel) who opened up his first store on Sunset Boulevard in 1975 with seed money from his friends Helen Reddy and Marvin Gaye. He’d honed his cookie-baking skills during his teenage years while living with his aunt Della in Harlem; the pecans that distinguished Famous Amos from other chocolate chip cookies were her innovation.

a pizza sitting on top of a wooden cutting board © Photo:bhofack2 (iStock)

Amos has not been involved with Famous Amos since 1989. The quality of cookies put out by Amos’ successors so depressed him that he has abandoned cookies altogether for muffins. (Only one variety listed on the Uncle Wally’s Bake Shoppe website contains chocolate chips. You can also see Amos here on an episode of Shark Tank, where he unsuccessfully pitched a company called The Cookie Kahuna.)

Other chocolate chip cookie stores that populated malls throughout the 1980s have undergone similar fates. Debbi Fields sold Mrs. Fields in the 1990s; in 1998, she remarried and is now Mrs. Rose. David Liederman also no longer owns David’s Cookies. Otis Spunkmeyer never existed. If you try to eat any of these mall cookies now and realize that they tasted much better back in the ’80s, that is why. Or your taste memory might just be really lousy.

As far as lies go, the deceptions—or creative marketing—surrounding chocolate chips and chocolate chip cookies are relatively harmless. The stakes are low. Who cares whether National Chocolate Chip Day, a totally bogus holiday, is celebrated on May 15 or August 4? (Though Brown Thursday is a much more charming name and, as Wyman points out, a gentle reminder that Famous Amos was a successful business founded by an African-American.) The story that first Mrs. Fields and then Neiman Marcus promised a customer a printed copy of their cookie recipe and then billed this unfortunate person’s credit card $250 has been proven to be a hoax. Neiman Marcus didn’t even have a cookie recipe until after the hoax became a full-fledged urban legend, and then the department store graciously shared it with The New York Times.

There is something very satisfying about finding tangible proof to refute widespread lies—and also doing so while eating chocolate chip cookies, because there are very few situations a little butter, sugar, and chocolate cannot improve. If the confusion over their origin story is too much for you, though, here’s something you can do: forget the chocolate chips altogether. Instead, buy a nice block of Valrhona or Callebaut or a bar of your other favorite high-end chocolate. Put it inside a Ziploc bag, and then smash it to pieces with a hammer. Instantly, you will have chips of chocolate. And all that smashing is bound to feel quite good, too.

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