National Chocolate Chip Cookie day is August 4. The most celebrated chocolate chip cookie is, of course, the Toll House chocolate chip cookie. And like most iconic foods, the Toll House cookie has a storied past.
Many people hear mention of Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and they can’t help but think of Phoebe in that famous “Friends” episode when she wants to give Monica her grandma’s “secret” chocolate chip cookie recipe as an engagement present, but the recipe was lost in a fire, and the “secret” recipe turns out to be the Nestlé Toll House cookie recipe.
When I hear mention of the celebrated cookie, I think of my childhood. My mom grew up in South Boston and her cookie batter-stained index card for Toll House chocolate chip cookies appeared on the counter at least once a week in our kitchen. Like Phoebe, I can’t find it, but it wasn’t lost in a fire, just missing. Maybe some day the recipe will surface in a box or somewhere and I can give it as an engagement present.
Here’s the skinny on the history of America’s iconic chocolate chip cookie. And by the way, there’s more to the tale of Toll House than the cookie—there is a Toll House restaurant in the mix, too.
The birthplace of the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie was in the Plymouth County town of Whitman, Mass., located between Boston and Cape Cod. Whitman is where passengers paid their toll, changed horses, and fueled up on a good meal before hitting the road.
Ruth Graves Wakefield was the owner (along with her husband) and chef at the inn. She was best known for her lobster dinners (a boiled lobster dinner was $2)—and fabulous desserts, including a thin butterscotch nut cookie served with ice cream. In later years, the restaurant became a spot for Bostonians and locals to celebrate a special occasion.
“It was a very popular restaurant even though it was never an actual ‘toll house,’” says Paula Fisher, director of marketing and group services, Plymouth County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The food options were very Americana and, of course, seafood as the coast is less than 30 miles away.”
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The inn burned to the ground in 1984. The Toll House sign remains, although the property is now condos. But the celebrated cookie still gets some love in Whitman—the town dropped a giant (fake) Toll House Cookie on New Year’s Eve in 2013.
Wakefield invented the Toll House chocolate chip cookie around 1938 — she used Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate in the recipe, and originally called the dessert chocolate crunch cookies because the chocolate didn’t completely melt.
The cookie was a local stud, but how did Massachusetts’ favorite cookie become a national sensation?
World War II soldiers from Massachusetts who were stationed overseas received care packages from home with the cookies. They shared them with the other soldiers, who wrote home to their families asking if they, too, could receive some Toll House chocolate chip cookie care package cookies. As a result, Wakefield received hundreds of letters from people around the world asking her for the recipe.
As the cookies continued to grow in popularity, the savvy chef struck a business deal with Andrew Nestlé. The deets: she gave the chocolate company the right to use her recipe, as well as the Toll House name. Nestlé printed the recipe on their chocolate chip packaging. What she got in return—a lifetime supply of Nestlé chocolate and $1.
Today, the Toll House chocolate chip cookie is the official state cookie of Massachusetts (it earned that designation in 1997). And it still melts hearts across the country.