A Brief History of the Chocolate Chip

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Celebrating National Chocolate Chip Day—not a federal holiday, at least not yet—should be easy enough for all the classic dessert lovers and cookie aficionados out there. Just grab a bag of some chocolate morsels, whip them into some delectable cookie dough, and have at it. But have you ever wondered where exactly the chocolate chip came from? Who invented it? Who decided it was best for baking? Should we be calling it a “chip” or a “morsel”? We’ve got all those answers—and more!—in our brief history of the chocolate chip.

The Toll House Myth

Chances are, you’ve made (or at least eaten) a Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie at some point in your life. The baking bits purveyor has long stamped their “Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie” recipe on the back of their various morsel packages (and yes, all Nestle packages refer to them as “morsels,” not “chips,” but we’ll get to that later), so it’s no surprise that most people associate the famous cookie with Nestle.

They’ve even got a whole story to go along with the kinda-sorta myth of the Toll House cookie. The traditional tale holds that Toll House Inn owner Ruth Wakefield invented the cookie when she ran out of baker’s chocolate, a necessary ingredient for her popular Butter Drop Do cookies (which she often paired with ice cream—these cookies were never meant to be the main event), and tried to substitute some chopped up semi-sweet chocolate instead. The chocolate was originally in the form of a Nestle bar that was a gift from Andrew Nestle himself—talk about an unlikely origin story! The semi-sweet chunks didn’t melt like baker’s chocolate, however, and though they kept their general shape (you know, chunky), they softened up for maximum tastiness. (There’s a whole other story that imagines that Wakefield ran out of nuts for a recipe, replacing them with the chocolate chunks.)

The recipe was such a hit (it first popped up in Wakefield’s Tried and True cookbook in 1938, and it even appeared on Betty Crocker’s radio show, thanks to its massive popularity) that Wakefield eventually struck a deal with Nestle: They would feature her recipe on the back of every bar of semi-sweet chocolate the company sold, and she’d get a lifetime supply of their chocolate. 

The Famous Recipe

Sounds great, right? Well, even if the story wasn’t exactly true (more on that later), it did spawn a classic recipe that’s still the gold standard of chocolate chip cookie recipes, even though it’s been slightly tweaked over the years. You can find the original recipe here. Try it!

The Real Origin

The problem with the classic Toll House myth is that it doesn't mention that Wakefield was an experienced and trained cook—one not likely to simply run out of things, let accidents happen in her kitchen, or randomly try something out just to see if it would end up with a tasty result. As author Carolyn Wyman posits in her Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, Wakefield most likely knew exactly what she was doing, and while that doesn’t dilute how delicious the final product ended up being, it does make its mythic origin story seem just a smidge less magical. 

Even less magical? The truth about the deal Wakefield struck with Nestle. While Wakefield did indeed get free chocolate for the rest of her life and the company paid her to work as a consultant, she was reportedly due a single dollar for her recipe and the good “Toll House” name—a dollar she never got.

Chips Versus Morsels

Although we call the cookies that bear them "chocolate chip," the proper name for said chips is actually “morsels”—at least if you’re Nestle.

The moniker “chip” appears to have first popped up in the late nineteenth century, as part of an English tea biscuit recipe for “Chocolate Chips.” These chips, however, referred to the biscuits’ shape—they were cut out of the pan into small strips that the recipe deemed as being “chips.” Interestingly, the recipe did call for actual chocolate—but of the melted variety, not the morsel.

In 1892, the “chip” title was first applied to candy, as a Kaufmanns candy ad from the time boasted of their supply of “chocolate chips.” A year later, another candy store advertised their own chocolate chip candies. Not so fast, though, because it doesn’t seem like those chips had much to do with morsels as we know them; an 1897 court case involving the use of the trademarked name “Trowbridge Chocolate Chips” described the chips in question as “thin oblong pieces of molasses candy coated with chocolate.” This thin candy business continued into the 1930s, when Wakefield’s recipe hit the world.

Wakefield’s first published chocolate chip cookie recipe was actually called “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies.” When Nestle began publicizing the recipe, they simply became “Toll House Cookies.” Since no one had bothered to invent pre-made chunks, morsels, or chips at that time, Wakefield’s recipe graced the back of semi-sweet bars, which all included an individual cutter to chunk up the bars for cookie-making. The famous cookies finally got the “chip” moniker some time in 1940, thanks to various newspaper articles and recipes about various cookies and their popularity. By 1941, “chocolate chip cookies” was considered the standard name for the sweet treat.

Also in 1940, Nestle finally unveiled morsels for sale, and ads from the time tout the availability of both bars and morsels. Since then, Nestle has shared its famous chocolate chip recipe, all while selling its most important ingredient as “morsels” (other brands, like Hershey’s and Ghirardelli, call them “chips”).

The Famous Imitators

Although Nestlé’s morsels and Wakefield’s recipe pioneered the great chocolate chip cookie trail, they weren’t the only ones—there were plenty of imitators. In the '50s, both Nestle and Pillsbury rolled out premade cookie dough for purchase. In 1963, Chips Ahoy hit shelves, thanks to Nabisco. By the time the '70s rolled around, entire stores were dedicated to cookie sales—including chocolate chips—like Famous Amos, Mrs. Fields, and David’s Cookies. What do they all have in common? That necessary chip. Er, morsel.

Happy Chocolate Chip Day! 

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

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May 15, 2014 - 1:00pm
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