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Chocolate chip cookies and other lies
Notes on food origin stories and the mythology of the things we eat
Hello, Snackers. We need to talk about where your food comes from—not the ingredients or the sources but the stories behind them.
I’ve been thinking lately about the color magenta and how it doesn’t exist.
This is hard to fathom. Most of you have seen magenta yourself, processed it with your very own eyes and brain, perhaps even thought, “That’s magenta!” But in a strictly scientific sense, if you go looking for magenta on the spectrum of colors, it’s not actually there. As science writer Liz Elliott explains it:
[the human brain] has apparently constructed a colour to bridge the gap between red and violet, because such a colour does not exist in the light spectrum. Magenta has no wavelength attributed to it, unlike all the other spectrum colours.
Basically, our brains really, really want it to be there and so they create it—and poof, there it is in front of us, or so we think. (And it’s not just magenta; the same is true of five other colors we perceive but that don’t technically exist.)
We’re magic like this, our minds constantly performing neat little tricks without any conscious effort on our part.
It happens, too, when we try to make sense of the world around us. We’re forever attempting to connect dots, process cause and effect, and craft tidy narratives where they may or may not exist. Something happens and some gears in our brain begin turning and suddenly we’re concluding, Therefore this other thing also happened.
This is a story about the human need for a story.
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There’s a good chance you’ve heard some version of How Chocolate Chip Cookies Were Invented.
The one I heard, years ago and from some source I no longer recall (a teacher, perhaps), goes like this: In the early 1900s, a woman was trying to make chocolate cookies. She whipped up her usual batch of regular sugar cookies, then added chocolate chips, assuming they would melt and mix in with the rest of the dough. They didn’t—but the results were even tastier than she could have imagined, and she told everyone else to try her invention and they were an immediate hit.
As it turns out, that woman has a name: Ruth Wakefield. As it further turns out, she almost certainly knew exactly what she was doing—it was no accident.
My friend Geraldine DeRuiter, a James Beard Award-winning food writer, heard I was working on a piece about chocolate chip cookies, and emailed me some information from her own recent research:
The cookie was supposedly invented in 1937 by Ruth Wakefield, named after her restaurant (the Toll House Inn). She sold the recipe to Nestle two years later, with permission to use the name Toll House on the back of their packages. Rumor has it she sold it for a dollar, but got free chocolate for life (and considering that you can't copyright a recipe, it sounds like she knew exactly what she was doing). …
The accidental element of the chocolate chip cookie's genesis has been long disputed. Carolyn Wyman, author of The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book writes that Wakefield wouldn’t have made such a mistake. A promotional booklet for her restaurant described it as having “unruffled perfection” and that within its walls, “Confusion is unknown.” So it’s hard to imagine that those melted bits of chocolate were anything but intentional. Perhaps it’s that we refuse to attribute genius to women, even when it is so clearly deserved. Or perhaps it’s that we find comfort in the idea that our fuck-ups might yield something amazing.
I suspect she’s exactly right in her speculation about the reasons the story has been bungled so often: it’s part misogyny, part relatability, both of which, for better or for worse, are part of the fabric of our society’s collective storytelling.
As individuals and also as a sprawling, dispersed assortment of people participating in the same culture and moment in history, we all bring our expectations and biases to bear on the stories we see around us—and the stories we think we see.
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If you dig even deeper, there are more twists to the story of chocolate chip cookies.
The podcast Gastropod recently looked at the history and found chocolate chip cookies listed in publications as early as 1928. My own research nudges it back even further. Here’s the earliest mention I could find, part of a longer list of cookie varieties listed in a newspaper ad from the Bloomington (Wisconsin) Record in 1920:
Chocolate chip cookies soon appeared in other newspapers around the country: ads in Olean, New York in 1923 and Great Falls, Montana in 1926; a luncheon menu in Louisville in 1929. In 1935, a newspaper in Vancouver ran a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, although it called for melting the chocolate as a first step, so they were a different thing altogether, despite the name.
All of these dates are before 1937, the year that—according to lore—Ruth Wakefield invented chocolate chip cookies. So, no, she wasn’t the first person to make them, although it’s entirely possible she started making them without knowing that others had done so (I am not here to malign Ruth Wakefield as a spotlight-stealer).
These earlier mentions were not exactly hiding; I found more beyond the ones I’ve listed here. But none of that alternate history pinpoints a specific person or place or moment. There’s no story, just a bland accumulation of data points that gesture vaguely to the past and say “Something happened back then.” That’s not satisfying.
“For all of the sophisticated methodologies in science, we have not moved beyond the story as the primary way that we make sense of our lives,” Robert A. Burton wrote in Nautilus back in 2019. Stories, he said, allow us to see sense, connections, and patterns, all of which feed our internal reward system and nudge up our dopamine levels. Our minds feast on stories, gobbling them up like so many snacks.
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One of the things I’ve learned while writing this newsletter is that a lot of food origin stories are wrong. See if you can spot the trend here:
James Spratt did not invent the dog biscuit. We don’t know who did.
Good Humor did not invent the ice cream truck. We don’t know who did.
Walter Diemer did not invent bubble gum. We don’t know who did.
Dan Walker did not invent caramel apples. We don’t know who did.
Baker Cheese did not invent string cheese. We don’t know who did.
Spanky’s did not invent chicken fingers. We don’t know who did (but it may have been someone at a Chinese-Polynesian restaurant in the 1960s).
Salvatore Ferrara did not invent the candy Boston baked beans. It was created by Necco, the candy company, most likely as a nod to the actual baked beans popular in Boston, the corporate home base.
“Aunt Sally” did not invent Key lime pie. It, too, was created by a corporation, Borden Dairy, probably to sell sweetened condensed milk.
In so many of these cases, the attribution is given to a specific person (usually a man) with a name, a life, and a professional career we could learn about if just looked it up. There’s a “great man of history” vibe to the mythology, a valorization of an individual hero of uncommon genius and character.
But sometimes the story—like the color magenta—just isn’t really there, no matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we convince ourselves that obviously it exists.
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Food origin stories are, of course, a low-stakes version of a much broader phenomenon. As long as there have been storytellers, there have been unreliable narrators. Humans have manipulated and weaponized narratives in the most horrifying ways, and sometimes grave errors occur on the back end, when we misunderstand a story or fail to appreciate what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
Does it actually matter that the original inventor of the chocolate chip cookie was not Ruth Wakefield but some unknown person in an unknown place at an unknown time? Probably not. Wakefield popularized them and while it’s possible that the real inventor was cheated out of a deal with Nestle, nobody seems to know who that was, and Wakefield doesn’t seem to have had any ill intent. It’s just cookies, not Theranos.
But it’s still worth considering how these false origin stories develop and why they persist. Most of them are simply received wisdom, passed down over the years without anyone even thinking to fact-check them. It sounds good and grandma said it was true, so let’s just roll with it. (Speaking of grandma, Cathy Irway wrote a piece for Taste Cooking last December about “family” recipes that turn out to come from corporations, something of a parallel to our focus here today.)
When a false food origin story gets integrated into product marketing—as happened with chocolate chip cookies, the brand Toll House having taken its name from Wakefield’s restaurant—the erroneous attribution also becomes more problematic, as it turns actual people into brand mascots and their lives into mythology. Betty Crocker isn’t real and never has been, but if you go to the official Betty Crocker website and read “The story of Betty Crocker,” you’ll find a carefully-crafted bio written in a voice that is at once modern-internet and aw-shucks homespun. It’s supposed to sound like a real human, not a corporation:
From humble beginnings, through war, the great depression and a rapidly changing America, Betty was a bright and unstoppable force. So much so that in 1945, Fortune magazine named Betty Crocker as "the second best-known woman in America" following First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Betty Crocker doesn’t have a full-fledged mythology to her—as far as I know, she has no official backstory and there are no tall tales of her, say, baking 1,000 pies in a few hours (that link is an extremely niche Octonauts reference that five of you will find hilarious). But plenty of other fictitious characters do have a deeper personal identity, one intentionally designed to feel warm and endearing, for the express purpose of shilling for brands and making them feel less corporate.
The term for this is fakelore—folklore that comes not from some humble, accidental origins but is manufactured or promoted for specific interests. Paul Bunyan is a prime example—he’s best known as a loveable caricature of a lumberjack, but he’s largely the creation of a logging company marketing pamphlet from northern Minnesota, propaganda for the joys of clear-cutting forests. (Also, irony alert: the term “fakelore” is always credited to a folklorist named Richard M. Dorson but, just for kicks, I searched Newspapers.com and … yeah, someone else used it before him, meaning Dorson’s lore is also fake, in its own way.)
When food origin stories falsely attribute an invention to a specific individual, they veer into fakelore territory. That moment of insight, or the person’s heroic journey toward stardom, becomes part and parcel of the brand itself, one that can be sold with words like “original” and “authentic.” The story makes it relatable, and when it turns out to be wrong, well, that breaks the illusion.
And this, I think, is why so many of these food stories have endured: We want them to be right. We want to believe. We love stories and we love characters in stories, and when we’re provided with these, it satisfies a fundamental human hunger.
We want to believe in personal success—even if it’s accidental, as in the usual telling of Ruth Wakefield’s cookies—because it feels right and just and relatable. It’s a story we see in the world because it’s a story we want for ourselves. Uncertainty and confusion turn us away, but we always love a hero—even if their great triumph is nothing more (or less) than a delicious dish.