In Episode 171, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger spend Thanksgiving in a Whitman, Massachusetts, parking lot located between a fast food restaurant and a chain drug store in search of the sacred birthplace of the one of America’s most beloved holiday baked goods: the Toll House Chocolate Chip cookie. In 1938, Ruth Wakefield’s kitchen concoction turned from a happy accident into a nation-wide phenomenon. We’ll find out how!
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[CARS DRIVING BY]
JEFF: Happy Thanksgiving, Ray!
RAY: Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Jeff. Although it feels a little weird to be in this Whitman, Massachusetts, parking lot standing between a fast food restaurant and a chain drug store on Thanksgiving Day.
JEFF: I get that. It’s not exactly picturesque. But let me ask you, what’s your favorite part of Thanksgiving?
RAY: The food, of course! The turkey, the mash potatoes, the stuffing, the fresh rolls, cranberry sauce… and don’t get me started on desserts!
JEFF: I’m right there with you. But dessert is actually where I’d like to start today, if you don’t mind.
RAY: I don’t mind at all!
JEFF: Do you have a favorite dessert, Ray?
RAY: I love the pies and just about anything baked. But during the holidays if I had to pick just one baked good—call me old fashion—but I’m going with the chocolate chip cookie.
JEFF: Amen! I couldn’t agree more! The chocolate chip cookie. You can’t go wrong, really. Cookie. Chocolate. Sweet with a hint of salt. It’s perfection. Which is exactly why we’re standing in this Whitman parking lot right now. This is the birthplace of one of the most legendary baked goods in all of New England… nay… all of America! Today, in honor of Thanksgiving dessert, we’re exploring the history of the Toll House chocolate chip cookie.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 171 – the Thanksgiving Special – of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. And if we’re talking about the holidays and cookies, then we have to talk about our sponsor…Nuwati Herbals. Native American inspired herbal remedies, teas, lotions, soaps and more… including the perfect tea for your holiday cookies. Nuwati’s Chocolate Chai Tea.
JEFF: I know our friends over the pond fancy a cup of tea with their biscuits but I guess I never considered tea with my cookies.
RAY: Well, why not? This delicious cup of awesome takes Nuwati’s traditional black tea leaf and adds holiday-inspired ingredients like nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, lemon, ginger and more to create the perfect companion to any dessert, including cookies!
RAY: Pinkies out Jeff.
JEFF: Of course. Oh, it has a bit of a spicy kick doesn’t it? Don’t forget the classic dunk.
RAY: Good call. Mmmm… and like everything Nuwati makes, it’s good for the soul.
JEFF: I already feel at peace… and great timing because I have to go Christmas shopping after the show. Pick up a bag of Nuwati Herbals Chocolate Chai Tea at Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N U W A T I herbals with an “s” dot com. Buy some for yourself AND a friend. Nuwati products make great gifts.
RAY: And don’t forget to use the promo code LEGENDS20 at check out for an extra 20% off your order!
JEFF: Right on. Okay, Ray, set down your tea, because we’re going back in time in search of a cookie. I know this Whitman parking lot isn’t much to see right now. But there is a remnant of what we’re looking for right over there.
RAY: I can’t believe I missed that before! It’s an old wooden sign with the words “Toll House” across it. In a circle at the top there’s a date: 1709, and a statue of an old colonist pointing to his left. And underneath that is some kind of monument.
JEFF: This is where the famous Toll House once stood. And somewhere right over there, a legendary cookie was born. You ready to see it all happen?
RAY: I am! Let’s head back to 1709 and set this up.
JEFF: Wait, wait… hold on!
JEFF: 1709 is too far back.
RAY: Really?! But the sign says 1709!
JEFF: I know, I know. Though the original building was constructed in 1709, and was located sort of near where they used to collect the tolls, the real story behind this legend doesn’t begin until 1930. So let’s start there.
RAY: It’s 1930 here in Whitman, Massachusetts, and Ruth and Ken Wakefield have just purchased a house on Bedford Street. But Ruth and Ken have some big plans for this place.
[HAMMER AND SAW]
RAY: They’re expanding this building into a restaurant and inn.
JEFF: The thing about Ruth Graves is she loves to cook. She was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts, raised in nearby Easton, and then attended the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts. She taught home economics at Brockton High School, but also worked as a hospital dietitian and even lectures on food. She loves food. But her real passion is baking. She inherited many of her recipes from her grandmother, but she also has a knack for making up her own.
RAY: Ruth meets Ken Wakefield, an executive at a meatpacking company, and the two fall in love. Their lives and careers revolve around food and food supply, so it’s not a stretch that couple dream of owning and operating their own restaurant. When they see the house on Bedford Street, they imagine what it could be: a place to serve great food and bring in weary travelers.
JEFF: After expanding their building, they open The Toll House Inn with seven tables for dining. They really play up this backstory of a toll house on the stagecoach route between Boston and New Bedford. That this was the place to stop for a meal, rest, and water the horses, and then be on your way.
RAY: I love it! Quaint New England stuff. Genius.
JEFF: But not as genius as the food they serve.
JEFF: The restaurant is getting famous for its sea foam salad ring with lime gelatin, lobster dishes, and of course, Ruth’s desserts like Boston Cream Pie, Indian Pudding, and lemon meringue pies.
RAY: Pretty quickly, those seven dining tables aren’t enough. So Ruth and Ken expand the place again.
[HAMMER AND SAW]
RAY: And now there are 60 tables, and the Toll House is becoming a local sensation.
JEFF: Meanwhile, Ruth is always baking something new in the kitchen. And business is booming! The Toll House Inn is a big success. But running a big restaurant is exhausting, so Ruth and Ken take a well-deserved and awe-inspiring vacation. It’s 1938 when they travel to Egypt.
JEFF: On the way home, Ruth is kicking around recipe ideas in her head. She explains.
RUTH: We had been serving a thin butterscotch nut cookie with ice cream. Everybody seemed to love it, but I was trying to give them something different.
JEFF: She’s thinking about variations of her Butter Drop Do cookies.
RAY: When Ruth steps back into the kitchen of the Toll House Inn, she starts mixing up some cookie dough.
[WHISK AND MIXER]
RAY: The plan is to melt some squares of bakers chocolate…
JEFF: Yuck! That stuff is really bitter.
RAY: Right, it has no sugar or milk or any flavoring in it. So her thought is to melt it to mix it into the batter, but there’s a problem.
JEFF: What’s that?
RAY: There’s no baker’s chocolate in the kitchen. So… Ruth does what all great cooks do. She improvises. She sees this bar on the shelf: (PAUSE) Nestle semisweet chocolate bar. It had been sitting there a while because what do you even DO with semisweet chocolate? Ruth figures she’ll break up the bar and crumble it into the dough so it melts while baking.
[BANGING ICE PICK]
RAY: She grabs an ice pick and starts to hack the chocolate bar into pieces. She crumbles those pieces into the dough, mixes it up, and spoons them onto a cookie sheet.
[TICK TICK TICK TICK]
RAY: 10 to 12 minutes later…
RAY: The cookies are done. Oooo look, Jeff, they’re coming out of the oven right now.
JEFF: They smell amazing. I’m drooling! Look at those cookies! But Ruth… she looks confused. I mean she sees the cookies, but the chocolate… it didn’t melt. Well, it melted, but it didn’t lose its shape. And as the cookies cool, the chocolate that she chipped off the bar are solid again. Ray… should we try one?
RAY: Yup. Oh man… that’s amazing!
JEFF: Yeah it is. The dough balances with the chips. So good! And we’re here to witness the birth!
RAY: We’re not the only people to love Ruth’s little baking accident. Everyone who tries one of these cookies loves them, and soon, Ruth is baking more of them. A lot more!
RAY: This cookie is getting so popular, that folks are hounding Ruth for the recipe. And not one to keep a good thing to herself, Ruth shares it with those who ask. She even allows a Boston newspaper to print it!
1 Cup of Butter
¾ of a cup of brown sugar
¾ of a cup of granulated sugar
2 eggs, beaten whole.
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of hot water
2 ¼ cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of chopped nuts
2 Nestle’s semisweet economy bars – 7 ounces each
1 teaspoon of vanilla
Important: cut the Nestle’s Semisweet in pieces the size of a pea. Cream the butter and add sugars and beaten egg. Dissolve the soda in the hot water and mix alternately with the flour sifted with the salt. Lastly, add the chopped nuts and the pieces of semisweet chocolate. Flavor with the vanilla and drop half teaspoons on a greased cookie sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes in a 375-degree oven.
JEFF: As the recipe makes its way through the newspapers, pretty soon home bakers all over are trying the recipe for themselves. And their families are going nuts!
RAY: Meanwhile, the Nestle company is seeing a strange spike in sales in New England. You see, they made the semisweet chocolate bar for people who didn’t want their chocolate overpowered by sugar, but also didn’t want the chocolate too bitter like baker’s chocolate. The semisweet bar was not a huge seller, but then the sales are spiking in New England. And the company is trying to figure out why.
JEFF: Ruth also prints this recipe in her own published cookbook under the name: Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies.
RAY: And boom! Ruth and her cookie is fast-becoming a New England legend.
JEFF: Haaaa I see what you did there.
RAY: But then something big happens that will turn Ruth’s cookie into not just a New England phenomenon, but a nation-wide, maybe even an international one as well.
JEFF: What’s that?
[MACHINE GUNS AND EXPLOSIONS AND AIRPLANES FLYING BY]
RAY: December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and the United States is officially in World War II. As U.S. troops head over to Europe and the Pacific by the thousands, they quickly find themselves missing home. But soon, letters and care packages arrive offering some comfort and good cheer during dark times.
JEFF: And some of those care packages are heading to men who are from Massachusetts and New England.
RAY: And some of those New England care packages contain homemade Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies.
JEFF: The New England soldiers open their packages.
JEFF: And they share some of their homemade cookies with their fellow soldiers from all over the United States.
RAY: Then those soldiers write letters home asking for their own batch of homemade Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies.
JEFF: Meanwhile, the Nestle company has figured out the explosion in their sales of semisweet chocolate is due to Ruth Wakefield’s amazing cookie. Not one to miss an opportunity, Nestle realizes they can save home bakers a lot of trouble and CHIP the chocolate at the factory, and sell these morsels by the box.
RAY: But then they get an even better idea… what if they could print Ruth Wakefield’s recipe right on the box? That would make it even easier for home bakers. Buy the box of semisweet morsels and you don’t have to go digging for the recipe. They just need Ruth’s permission.
JEFF: Ruth is flattered by all of the attention. Her restaurant and inn are packed all the time, her cookbook is selling well, and she’s gaining international fame because of her cookie. And now here’s Nestle asking to buy the rights to print her recipe, PLUS print her picture on the box of morsels, AND call them Nestle’s Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. After some fierce negotiations, they reach an agreement. And Ruth gets paid.
[DING OF CASH REGISTER]
RAY: Nice! How much does she get?
JEFF: A buck.
RAY: One dollar?!
JEFF: One dollar. AND all of the Nestle chocolate products she wants for the rest of her life. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: And here we are in this Whitman parking lot, but where’s the Toll House Inn?
JEFF: The Wakefields sold the inn back in 1967 and retired. Sadly, the Toll House Restaurant and Inn burned to the ground in 1984, and no part of the building survives today. Nestle no longer prints Ruth’s picture on the bag of semi-sweet morsels, and they dropped the sketch of the old inn from their logo, but the recipe is still there, though it’s changed slightly. No matter what, that amazing cookie is going to live on forever… especially here in Massachusetts.
RAY: Because the cookie was born in Massachusetts?
JEFF: Because in 1997 Massachusetts recognized the Chocolate Chip Cookie as the official cookie of the Commonwealth. So though the actual building is a memory, we do have a state cookie.
RAY: Plus, the town of Whitman put up the old Toll House sign and this plaque here in the parking lot that tells the story of a cookie that grew… into a legend.
RAY: Happy Thanksgiving, Jeff.
JEFF: Happy Thanksgiving, Ray! And Happy Thanksgiving to all of you legendary listeners out there. We’re grateful to be in your lives each and every week. If you want to see Ruth’s original recipe and pictures of the old Toll House Inn, head over to our Web site and click on Episode 171.
RAY: We’re also grateful to our patreon patrons who kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you want to become a bigger part of the movement, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: With the holiday season officially kicked off, be sure to check out my virtual story tour this December. I’m giving over a dozen Creepy Christmas programs for various libraries. You can find dates, times, and how to registered on our Web site.
RAY: We’re also grateful to Lorna Nougeria for lending her voice acting talents this week, we’re grateful to our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and of course we’re grateful to John Judd for composing and performing our theme music.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Sandy Nicole from Clinton, Massachusetts, until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.