Chip off the old block

Most of us grew up eating these iconic cookies
Chip off the old block
Photo by Larry Chua
Batch Bakehouse chocolate chip cookies are offered at the Williamson Street shop.

Most of us grew up eating them. Along with hamburgers and corn on the cob, they’re recognized worldwide as quintessentially American. But as with most iconic things, the chocolate chip cookie has an interesting and contentious backstory.

Indubitably, in the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield, who ran the Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, invented the chocolate chip cookie. A much-repeated tale is that it was the result of a serendipitous culinary accident. As the story goes, as she was whipping up a batch of her Butter Drop Do cookies and found herself out of nuts, Ruth substituted a chopped-up block of baking chocolate. Another account is that the chocolate accidentally fell into the bowl of her commercial mixer. A more likely scenario is that Wakefield, a trained and talented cook, came up with the concept herself. The recipe first appeared in print in 1938 in her cookbook “Tried and True.” A year later she gave Nestle the rights to her recipe in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate. After the company printed it on its boxes of semisweet chocolate, sales skyrocketed, so Nestle began to include a small chopper with each bar. In 1939, Nestle introduced small, precut pieces of chocolate that were dubbed morsels.

For a while, no matter the brand of chocolate chips–and Nestle soon had many imitators–the cookie was universally known as the Toll House cookie. Gradually, however, the generic moniker chocolate chip cookie took hold.

World War II really popularized this indulgence. Despite rationing and a shortage of chocolate, women were encouraged (especially by Nestle) to bake cookies and send them to their sons, husbands and boyfriends in service. When peace and prosperity returned in the 1950s, the chocolate chip cookie had supplanted apple pie as the all-American dessert. Refrigerated cookie dough and packaged cookies appeared at the supermarket. By the 1970s, shops like Famous Amos, Mrs. Fields and David’s sprang up. In the 1980s, its status rose to new heights when Midwest Express airlines baked them on board, wooing passengers with their warm gooiness.

The nature of this delectable little biscuit has evolved over 87 years. First of all, chocolate chip cookies aren’t so little any more. What started out as roughly two inches in diameter now seems to know no bounds, with bigger definitely being better. That seems to be the only cookie consensus today. Thick or thin, crispy or soft–all variations have their advocates.

Home-baked still can’t be beat, but my favorite store-bought cookie incongruously comes from Underground Butcher. Medium-sized, not too thick, and chewy with a just a bit of crunch, it’s just right for me. Batch Bakehouse is a close runner-up. For bagged cookies, thin and crisp Tate’s are amazingly satisfying and come in several varieties, including gluten free. “Barefoot Contessa” host and author Ina Garten is supposedly addicted to them, and I can relate to that. Let’s face it, I’ve encountered very few chocolate chip cookies that didn’t have their own charm. There are days I’d gladly settle for even Chips Ahoy!

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.