Influenced by generations of immigrants, beloved by everyone, the chocolate-chip cookie has kept American cuisine great for decades
At a time when the United States of America appears more culturally divided than ever before, consider the cookie. The name used by all Americans, Republican or Democrat, for small, flat, sweet confections, when it comes to exploring the pluralism of the American dream, the chocolate-chip cookie really does take the biscuit.
Everything about the cookie owes its origins to generations of immigration to the United States, a mush of culinary and even linguistic traditions mushed into an Ellis Island-shaped mixing bowl, kneaded into a dough that stretches from coast to coast. Early Dutch settlers can lay claim to having inspired the name, with cookie a derivation of the Dutch koekje, a kind of catchall term applied to various ‘little cakes’ in the Netherlands. Settlers from Great Britain and Ireland, the Nordic nations, Eastern Europe and beyond the Steppes each arrived with their own take on biscuits, each informing the American taste for something that dunks.
The American cookie is big and sugar, a crisp ring that gives way to a chewy centre studded through with chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Tradition would dictate they be consumed with glasses of ice-cold milk, though this is an apocryphal affectation; the cookie was originally linked to feast days in general, and New Year’s Day in particular, when the done thing in the early part of the 19th century was to serve them with cherry bounce, a fruit cordial.
Red, white and chew: American English has also adopted the word cookie to apply to any kind of biscuit [Pixabay]
There are, obviously, an endless supply of cookie recipes for any baker to choose from, with the cookie’s flexibility a key part of its lasting success; that doesn’t just relate to the adorning ingredients lobbed on with reckless abandon, from popcorn to squares of chocolate bars, but to the irrefutable resilience of the cookie to adapt to whatever a baker has lying around in his or her larder. To flour can be added any kind of fat, from butter to margarine, by way of shortening or suet. For sweetness, throw in any type of sugar or syrup, even honey or stewed apples. The chichi chef today might work through a seam of sharply salty caramel or gooey marshmallow, though purists will settle for nothing more than dark chocolate chips and maybe a handful of nuts.
But even in its most basic form, a cookie can carry the weight of a country, playing an integral part in national morale and proving much-needed pleasure in the face of adversity. During the Great Depression, children and adults could treat themselves to a moment of reprieve from the crushing grimness of poverty but buying an affordable cookie from a bakery, with each bite offering a break from the monotony of the bland and flavourless meals that dominated their diets. Warm from the oven, wafting scents of caramelised sugar set to trigger the brain, a hand filled with a cookie made for a break, however temporary, from the drudge. This continued on into the Second World War, where cookies became the centrepiece of care packages shipped overseas, guaranteeing the biscuit’s place in the cultural pantheon of American treats along with the doughnut and apple pie.
In the late 1970s, a handwritten note left by an anonymous customer at their Vermont ice cream shop led Ben & Jerry’s to spend five years working out a way to mass produce a process to allow them to blend hand-mixed nuggets of frozen cookie dough into their vanilla ice cream. When the flavour was released for the first time in 1984, it quickly spread throughout their chain and beyond, become the most popular variety of their ice cream by 1991 and still a flagship flavour more than a quarter of a century later.
Despite the mixed history of the cookie, the creation of the traditional chocolate-chip kind is usually attributed to Ruth Wakefield, the proprietress of Massachusetts’s famous Toll House restaurant until it burned down in 1967. Her recipe, altered over the ensuing decades to come more in line with healthier dietary demands, was first published in 1938. Devised as an alternative to ice-cream wafers, Wakefield’s cookies became so popular in their own right that they appeared on a radio programme hosted by Marjorie Husted, better known as Betty Crocker. In 1939, Wakefield rather astonishingly agreed to sell the rights to her recipe to the Nestlé company, which has published a variation of it for decades, for the sum of one dollar – which Wakefield maintained she never actually received. Which sounds right up the alley of the new White House administration, all things considered.