In this week leading up to the election, I’ve been thinking more about American history as a whole and some of the stories that we get wrong. Since politics have been ruining my mood, I thought I’d focus on the more enjoyable food history. Here are the stories behind two American classics: chocolate chip cookies and potato chips.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
In 1930, Ruth Graves Wakefield and her husband opened the Toll House Inn restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts. She was an experienced baker who regularly created new recipes, and her desserts were always popular. She graduated from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts and became a dietician who gave lectures on food. She was said to run a tight ship in the Toll House kitchen with its 100 staff members. The popular story of how the chocolate chip cookie was invented says that it happened by accident. Wakefield herself said it wasn’t and I’m inclined to believe that. She said that she used Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate in a dough that would usually be for a butterscotch nut cookie, intentionally trying to create something new and interesting. The new bake was a hit.
Wakefield freely gave out her recipes and her friend Betty Crocker featured the chocolate chip cookie recipe on her Cooking School of the Air radio program, furthering its spread. In 1936 she published the first Toll House Cookbook and the 1938 edition had the chocolate chip cookie in it, then called chocolate crunch cookies.
The Nestlé company was curious as to why so much more of their chocolate was suddenly being bought in New England, so they sent someone to investigate. When it was discovered that Wakefield’s recipe was behind it all, they made a deal with her. In exchange for a life-time supply of chocolate and $1, Wakefield allowed her recipe to be featured on Nestlé packaging. The popularity of that chocolate for chocolate chip cookies led to the creation of their "chocolate morsels" specifically for the recipe in 1939.
The recipe became even more popular during WWII for two reasons. First, chocolate was being rationed. Since chocolate chip cookies didn’t require very much chocolate they were a more accessible sweet treat. Second, the cookies were put in care packages sent to soldiers who shared the cookies with their friends. Those friends were still wanting more when they came back home.
The classic story of how potato chips were created takes place in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853. It’s said that a wealthy customer at the Moon’s Lakehouse restaurant repeatedly sent back his order of fried potatoes, complaining each time that they were sliced too thick or were too soggy. The chef was the half African-American, half Native-American George Crum. The story goes that Crum became annoyed with this customer and to spite him, sliced the potatoes so thin that the man would have no choice but to eat with his hands rather than with a fork, which was a major faux pas at the time. The customer loved them and the "Saratoga chip" was created. Or so it’s said.
There are multiple versions of this story and every one of them is disputed. Some say that the other restaurant cook, Catherine "Aunt Kate" Weeks, was the chip’s true creator. In the late 1970s, the Snack Food Association came up with the story that the fussy customer was Cornelius Vanderbilt, though records show he was in Europe with his family that year. It’s been suggested that George Crum popularized the potato chip at his own restaurant in later years, but was not the inventor. In fact, he commissioned a biography about himself to be written and this biography makes no mention of potato chips. We can also add to this the fact that the Moons of Moon’s Lakehouse didn’t purchase the building until the year after this story supposedly took place.
In reality, the true origins of the potato chip are not known, but the bestselling 1822 cookbook "Cook’s Oracle" by the English William Kitchiner does feature a recipe very similar to the classic potato chip. Some American cookbooks published before George Crum’s birth also have close recipes, like the wildly popular "The Virginia Housewife".
While the potato chip might not come from America, the classic bag of chips does. In the early 20th century, Laura Clough Scudder made a business selling potato chips. Originally, they were distributed to shops in bulk, but this meant the chips at the bottom of the barrel would crumble and grow stale.
Scudder thought of a better way that could more easily guarantee the chips would taste fresh. She had employees fold and iron wax paper into bags which they filled the following mornings, then ironed shut and labeled with the date. Her company was actually the first to add a freshness date to its products. Eventually, Scudder sold her company for $6 million (over $55 million today). She was actually offered $3 million more by another buyer, but she refused to make a deal with them because they wouldn’t guarantee her employees could keep their jobs. I think she’s a wonderful example of how American businesses should be led.