A recent daylong blizzard hit parts of Massachusetts with 2 feet of snow, leaving me with a couple of choices: bundle up and shovel at frequent intervals or stay in the kitchen and bake cookies. For me, the choice was a no-brainer. I baked. And eventually, neighbors with a snow blower took pity on me and cleared off my walkways. In response to their good deed, I turned up at their back door with a heaping plateful of assorted cookies, fragrant with chocolate and still slightly warm, and was left with the feeling that each of us thought we got the better of the deal. I don’t think I have to explain why I was happy not to shovel heavy wet snow, and my neighbors’ expressions of sheer rapture when I handed over the cookies made their contentment clear. But this encounter set me to wonder why cookies –- especially home-baked ones — get people so excited.
For instance, I recently brought a gift of cookies to a friend who was giving a small dinner party and the sight of them made her express the usual exaltation I have come to think of as “cookie joy.” She may be the most sophisticated and intellectually gifted person I know, but not above loving cookies. What was unusual about her response, however, was that the day after the party I received an e-mail message from her that contained an analysis of each of the cookies and why she thought one was better than another. In other words, she had deconstructed the plate. Her favorite was a recipe I had never made before, double chocolate cookies that contain nuggets of walnuts and chocolate chips, a big hit with everyone this year.
The spreading of cookie joy motivates a man I know who, every morning, bakes mandel bread, a close relative of biscotti, and then packages and freezes them so as to have on hand a ready supply to meet any occasion. He brings them along to such important life events as weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, but also to casual card parties or gatherings around the pool of his retirement community. Handing out his cookies has become part of his identity, a thoughtful way of saying “hello, I like you,” a message that sits well with everyone he encounters. People brighten up when they see him coming, for he is never empty-handed.
Cookies with an all-American history
Our love of cookies helps to explain why everyone seems to know the story of Ruth Wakefield and her accidental discovery of chocolate chip cookies. Throwing some cut up semi-sweet chocolate into a batch of drop butter cookies and expecting the chocolate to melt and disappear, she was surprised to see that the chocolate bits kept their shape and stayed put. And thus America’s favorite home-baked cookie was born. Our devotion to this particular cookie has been augmented by the urban legend usually associated with Neiman-Marcus that had some believing that a customer’s request for a chocolate chip cookie recipe they were told would cost $2.50 wound up on her bill as $250. In the old days, this story, full of indignation, showed up in chain-letters along with a recipe, and then reappeared in the early days of e-mailing.
Our love of cookies has benefited the Girl Scouts who, since 1917, have sold cookies to raise millions and millions of dollars to fund their various programs. In the earliest years of the program, girls would bake cookies with their mothers, package them in wax paper bags sealed with a sticker and then go door to door selling them for 25 or 30 cents per dozen. Later, the task of baking was taken over by commercial bakers who now produce the much-loved Thin Mints, Samoas (vanilla cookies coated in caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut and decorated with chocolate stripes) and Tagalongs (vanilla cookies, layered with peanut butter and coated with chocolate) — the three most popular Girl Scout cookies. Americans look forward to the annual cookie drive and often bring boxes of them to offices around the country where they join together to eat cookies for a good cause.
Another American custom is the fortune cookie that tops off meals in Chinese restaurants around the country. Not at all Chinese in its origins, the cookie probably got started in San Francisco and spread throughout the country, with diners vying for who gets the best fortune, hoping not to be told, “you are a very nice person,” but preferring to read “you will meet the love of your life” or “you are going to be rich and famous.”
While fortune cookies are not enjoyed for their flavor but for their messages, we eat other cookies because we love the way they look and taste, perhaps identifying with the “Sesame Street” Cookie Monster who chants, “Me want cookie. Me eat cookie.” But why do we like cookies so much?
Proust’s transporting petite Madeleine
Perhaps we like the fact that if we eat just a couple, we are spared from the huge intake of calories we would absorb if we ate, let’s say, a couple of jelly doughnuts. The other reason we may find joy in cookies is that they can evoke positive memories. A whiff of spice may evoke memories of Grandma’s hermits, while even the sight of a bag of chocolate chips can recall pleasant days of after-school baking with Mom when we were kids. This connection between cookies and memory was most famously described by the writer Marcel Proust whose taste of a petite Madeleine dipped in tea led to the following phenomenon: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body…,” and he suddenly and vividly recalls nearly forgotten memories of his childhood when he frequently ate those cookies. Modern scientists refer to this phenomenon as “involuntary memory,” in which cues from everyday life bring up long-forgotten recollections from the past. Cookies will do that, and therefore should never be put down as being trivial or unimportant.
Double Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from “What Cooks in Suburbia” (1961) by Lila Perl
- Cream butter and sugar.
- Add egg and beat well.
- Stir in the melted chocolate which has cooled.
- Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and sift into the chocolate mixture.
- Blend well and add the coffee mixture, the vanilla extract, nuts, and chocolate chips.
- Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls about 1½ inches apart on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake on shelf in upper third of the oven at 375 F for 12 minutes or until cookies are firm in the center.
- NOTE: I use a small ice cream scoop to form cookies which then bake into an attractive round mound.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.