Chocolate Chips: A Semi-Sweet History Of A Baking Staple
Image Credit: It's odd to think that something as ubiquitous in our desserts as the chocolate chip was 'invented' as recently as 1937. Photo by Seth Bull/Flickr

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ORIGIN STORIES, in food as with medical discoveries, timely inventions and superhero tales, often begin with a fortuitous accident. Someone runs out of an ingredient, or leaves a pot boiling for too long, or reverses the order of a recipe — and voila! a new dish is born. 

There's a similar tale told about the creation of the "chocolate chip" as well. Considering how ubiquitous an ingredient it is, in everything from cookies to cake and ice cream — and how rudimentary it seems as an idea (if chocolate and its cooking/baking-specific variant have existed for so long, surely someone would have thought to simply package it in bite-sized bits?) — it is odd to read that the choco chip's invention is traced to as 'recently' as 1937.

But that certainly is what the most commonly narrated story about the chocolate chip would have us believe. According to this lore, Ruth Wakefield, who ran the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, ran out of (depending on which source you follow) nuts or cooking chocolate while making her popular Butter Drop Do cookies. She had a bar of Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate on hand, and decided to chop it up into chunks and incorporate it into her cookie dough. The result — semi-sweet chocolate doesn't melt in the same way as baking chocolate; it retains some of its shape while becoming pleasingly molten and gooey — was a hit with the Toll House's customers. 

Soon enough, Nestle had heard of this hit recipe that used their semi-sweet chocolate bar and convinced Wakefield to let them print it on the back of the packaging for it. "Toll House Cookies" gained American classic status, and Nestle included a little chopping tool along with its semi-sweet bars, for bakers who wished to try out the recipe. 

Photo via Bakerella / Flickr


The deal Nestle struck with Wakefield seemingly included the following:

One dollar for the use of the Toll House name and recipe

A lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate

A job with Nestle as a consultant. 

Food writer Kate Erbland notes that while Wakefield did get the chocolate supply and was paid for her consultant's gig, no records exist to show that she was ever paid the (token and entirely paltry) dollar. 

Other discrepancies Erbland flags with this origin myth: Wakefield was an experienced baker. The use of the semi-sweet chocolate pieces was certainly no spur-of-the-moment substitution, but likely an ingredient she had carefully considered and then used. Also deemed a marketing ploy is the claim that the original chocolate bar Wakefield used in her recipe had been given to her by Andrew Nestle himself. 

And of course there's the elephant-sized chocolate chip in the room: while Wakefield and Nestle popularised and standardised its actual use, the "chocolate chip" as a concept had existed for a while before that. In the late 1800s, a recipe for a type of English tea biscuit went under the moniker of "Chocolate Chips". It must be noted though that the "chips" referred to the biscuits themselves, which were cut into strips once baked. 

Chocolate chips were also marketed as candy by various brands, beginning with Kaufmanns in 1892. Some years later, they were followed by Trowbridge Chocolate Chips, although what was sold under this name was not the miniature pyramids we are used to today, but strips of chocolate-coated molasses candy. The Pennsylvania-based brand became so successful that its founder, William S Trowbridge, expanded his production facilities to employ 100 people.

A fire destroyed the factory in 1916, and Trowbridge was unable to salvage his machinery, despite an insurance payout. He was approached by other manufacturers with offers to license the Trowbridge name, but he turned them down, choosing instead to run a small restaurant until a few years before his death in 1936. The recipe for Trowbridge Chocolate Chips died with him.