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The Substitution That Gave Us America’s Favorite Cookie


Boston is famous for the Boston cream pie (which is really a cake!), but the area is also the birthplace of America’s favorite cookie. The chocolate cookie was created by mistake in Whitfield, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Its creator, Ruth Graves Wakefield, did Nestle quite a favor and struck an unusual deal with the chocolate company.

From Dietitian to Inn Owner

Born in 1905, Wakefield went on to graduate from Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924. She worked as a food lecturer and dietitian until she and her husband, Kenneth, purchased the old Smith House on Bedford Street in 1929. The house had been partially constructed by Jacob Bates in 1816 and 1817, and Lebbeus Smith completed the home after marrying Bates’ sister Polly. The Wakefields named the property the Toll House Inn, and included “Established 1709” on the signage.


The Toll House Inn, ca 1940

A toll house was a place where travelers could stop and pay a toll to change their horses and eat a wholesome meal. The Smith House had never actually been a toll house, but the Wakefields recognized a great marketing strategy when they saw it. Local historian Martha Campbell recalls, “Nobody ever worried about the imaginative date and name for this restaurant. Everybody knew that it was just a good promotional technique, and everybody who ever ate there will always remember the Wakefields.” Ruth did, however, continue the toll house tradition of serving delicious, home cooked meals. Though the restaurant opened during the Great Depression, people still managed to find a dollar for a meal at the Toll House Inn.

Wakefield ran quite the tight ship. One waitress noted that “she was tight as bark on a tree.” Servers were not allowed to use paper, so they had to commit all orders to memory. And they were also trained not to ask guests what they’d ordered when the food arrived at the table. Napkins were always folded perfectly, and Wakefield took pains to appoint the Toll House Inn with fine accoutrements from around the world. Her ornamental glassware was even photographed for Woman’s Day Dictionary of Sandwich Glass in 1963.

A Sweet Surprise, Indeed

But where Wakefield really excelled was in the kitchen, and she soon gained a reputation for creating delicious desserts. One day while making chocolate cookies based on a butter drop recipe, she realized she was out of baker’s chocolate. Wakefield decided to improvise. She broke up a bar of Nestle semi-sweet chocolate in the dough, assuming it would melt, absorb into the dough, and yield chocolate cookies. To her surprise, the chocolate didn’t melt into the dough! Instead, Wakefield had created chocolate chip cookies. She initially called them Toll House Crunch Cookies, and they became immensely popular.

Toll-House-CookiesWakefield’s chocolate chip cookies were such a hit that a Boston newspaper printed her recipe. Sales of Nestle semi-sweet chocolate spiked almost immediately. Wakefield contacted Nestle with a business proposition, and ended up striking a deal with company founder Andrew Nestle himself. Nestle would print Wakefield’s recipe on the wrappers of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate, and Wakefield would get a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Not long after, Nestle began producing and marketing semi-sweet morsels expressly for making chocolate chip cookies. Meanwhile Wakefield would go on to publish Toll House Tried and True Recipes (1940). Like her cookies, Wakefield’s cookbook was a smashing success, and has gone to 39 printings. The charming cookbook is popular among collectors thanks to the scrumptious invention of its author.

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6 comments on “The Substitution That Gave Us America’s Favorite Cookie

  1. Pingback: Is Chocolate Really an Aphrodisiac? | lizzyoungbookseller

  2. Stephen Schmidt
    November 13, 2013

    I believe that what Ruth Wakefield said was making, when inspiration for tollhouse cookies struck, was “butter drop do” (that is, dough), from Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, 1796–a claim as fanciful as the date and name of her restaurant. The actual source of Wakefield’s inspiration, whatever she said, was a highly popular cookie of her day called rocks (or sometimes hermits). Many recipes of the time for these cookies (such as the one in Settlement Cookbook) are virtually identical to Wakefield’s formula for tollhouse cookies–except that rocks are made with raisins where Wakefield adds chocolate bits.

    • bibliophiliackm
      November 13, 2013

      That’s interesting, Stephen! Didn’t come across that in my research. Thanks for reading & sharing.

      • Stephen Schmidt
        November 13, 2013

        Thank you! I’m delighted you found my comment of interest. I realized immediately after posting that I misspoke. The “do” in “butter drop do” means “ditto.” The recipe is one of four recipes for gingerbread–in other words, “butter drop gingerbread.”

      • bibliophiliackm
        November 13, 2013

        Now I want cookies…This is unrelated, but I saw that you have a forthcoming book on desserts. Okay to contact you about that via email? We’d love to feature you in an upcoming article.

      • Stephen Schmidt
        November 13, 2013

        Cookies are always good! Absolutely okay to contact me. The book, actually, is not immediately forthcoming (long story), but I am engaged in another project that will likely be of interest to readers of this blog.

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2013 by in Baking and Confectionery Books, History and tagged , , , , .
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