This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, first released on April 19, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
YU-PING LUK: They have been described as various things like tartlets, or cakes, cookies, pretzels and all sorts of names because they really look like the snacks that we, enjoy nowadays.
LUK: It’s remarkable that they’re actually, from the eighth century, so they’re over a thousand years old, but they look remarkably fresh.
LUK: So let’s take a look.
NICOLA TWILLEY: There is no way cookies would ever last more than a thousand years anywhere near me, but apparently the British Museum staff has a little more self control.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Yes, we really did see cookies that old, and they were beautiful and almost modern-looking and not crumbly at all! Amazing in so many different ways.
TWILLEY: And as you maybe have guessed by now, that’s what this episode is all about: the amazing cookie. Or biscuit, as its known my homeland. I am Nicola Twilley, British transplant to the US.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. And I’m the American who has always called them cookies.
TWILLEY: But that transatlantic linguistic variation is just a tiny part of the cookie’s contribution to the English language. Cracker barrels, slush funds, they’re all cookie related, as is the British term for Liverpudlians — Scousers.
GRABER: The stories behind all these words will be revealed — as well as why the earliest biscuits were invented. Hint, it has to do with battles, beer, and bread.
TWILLEY: All that, plus the true story behind the creation of the chocolate chip cookie. I warn you now, you will not want to listen to this episode without a cookie or two in hand.
GRABER: Even if you’re not covered in blue fur.
COOKIE MONSTER: C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me…
GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: Before we get to cookies, we want to tell you about a new podcast series from our friends at the Food & Environment Reporting Network. It’s called Hot Farm. Over four episodes, host Eve Abrams talks to farmers across the Midwest about the reality of climate change, and what they’re doing—or could be doing—to fight it. Farming accounts for a full 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so, if we’re serious about fighting climate change, farmers need to be part of the solution.
TWILLEY: It won’t be easy, but on one farm in Arkansas, that future is already taking shape. Find Hot Farm wherever you get your podcasts.
LUK: I’m Yu-Ping. I’m the curator for Chinese paintings, prints and Chinese Central Asian collections at the British museum.
TWILLEY: On a recent trip to London, Cynthia and I got taken through a locked private door at the very back of the museum. We popped out in a room where six extremely old cookies were waiting for us.
LUK: So we’re here to look at some really special objects. They’re eighth century food items from a tomb site called the Astana cemetery, which is in the Eastern part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in present day China.
LUK: We keep them inside these clear Perspex boxes just for their protection. And also inside they’re, on top of an acid-free tissue
LUK: This looks like a, a cookie and it’s round, it looks like a flower. And in the center, there’s this, sort of looks like a sticky substance, which has been described as a maybe jam and perhaps with a fruit, possibly a grape in the center of it.
GRABER: A couple of the others had swirls and complicated designs and they looked like cookies that had been embossed in a mold.
LUK: And then like these ones, which have been described as something like a wafer. And they look like they’re are made up of many thin layers that have been placed on top of each other before it was possibly baked, I guess.
LUK: So it seems like they were using different kinds of techniques to make them.
GRABER: They’re really beautiful.
TWILLEY: They are so, so gorgeous.
GRABER: This looks almost like a wing over here.
TWILLEY: I know.
GRABER: And this really does look like a just kind of typical jam cookie.
TWILLEY: Yeah. I mean, I swear I’ve eaten things—
GRABER: I know, I’ve definitely eaten cookies like that. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: We were having to restrain ourselves from picking them up and having a nibble. Although apparently nobody knows for sure what they taste like because the museum hasn’t done a chemical analysis of their ingredients—they’re just too fragile.
GRABER: These cookies really looked like something you could buy today. But they were actually baked one thousand three hundred years ago.
LUK: I think they might indeed be the oldest that survive in the world.
GRABER: But why cookies in a tomb?
TWILLEY: Because ghosts like cookies too.
LUK: These items are probably food offerings. That were meant for the deceased.
LUK: So perhaps to nourish the spirit of the deceased.
TWILLEY: That said, Yu-Ping told us that people living nearby also probably enjoyed these kind of cookies while they were alive.
GRABER: But when tomb robbers found these ancient graves, they weren’t so interested in the food. They took literally everything else that had been buried in the tomb…
LUK: And these was what’s left of, of the tomb objects.
TWILLEY: Again, all this self restraint. I don’t understand it.
GRABER: But even though these cookies are the oldest in the world, the origins of the cookie go back even further.
LIZZIE COLLINGHAM: Biscuits have been around as long as grain has been domesticated. Probably. And certainly since people started making it into bread.
COLLINGHAM: So the, so the, in the earliest third millennium BC in the fertile crescent.
GRABER: Lizzie Collingham has been on our show before, she starred in the curry episode, which you might remember because you’d have finished listening and then continued singing vindaloo forever after hearing it.
TWILLEY: Vindaloo, vindaloo, vindaloo, vindaloo, vindaloo! Ooh, na, na…
GRABER: But she also wrote a new book called The Biscuit, a very British indulgence.
TWILLEY: Those very first biscuits, 5000 years ago, were basically like more dried up toast.
COLLINGHAM: The way you make biscuits is that you would make a loaf of bread, slice it up and then dry those slices in the residual heat of the oven.
COLLINGHAM: So if you dry it into rusks, you reduce it to about 10% water. So you’ve got 90% of the water has gone. And therefore it can’t rot, turn into mush, go moldy as quickly as bread would.
GRABER: Lizzie just said that ancient peoples dried out sliced bread to turn the slices into rusks, but I had never heard of a rusk before reading Lizzie’s book.
TWILLEY: But pretty much every British person has, because you can buy them in the supermarket in the UK today — they’re these super hard biscuits that you give to babies who are teething to gnaw on.
GRABER: In America, probably the closest thing to the original rusks, the original biscuits are what we’d call melba toast, which are these square things that look like pieces of dried out bread. Which is exactly what biscuits originally were thousands of years ago.
COLLINGHAM: They would take them with them if they had to go on a journey and then you could have something to eat that would be light and durable.
COLLINGHAM: But the first biscuits were made in order to store fermented barley to make beer.
TWILLEY: This is very weird, but Lizzie says, the world’s very very first biscuits were actually kind of like beer bouillon cubes.
COLLINGHAM: So, when you make beer, you want barley to be fermented. And then that starts that process of releasing the sugars.
COLLINGHAM: But fermented barley, once you’ve done that, doesn’t last very long. It is hard to store. So if you baked the fermented barley into bread, cut it up in and dried it into rusks in the oven, then you could store that fermented barley for a very long time.
COLLINGHAM: And then when you wanted some beer, you just got the rusks out, crushed them into crumbs [SOUND OF HANDS RUBBING TOGETHER], added them to water, heated it up to make a mush or mash and added, then, some date juice or some honey. And left it to ferment and Hey Presto, you had beer.
GRABER: Sounds totally delicious!
TWILLEY: But actually even the more toast-like biscuits — the ones made from bread dough rather than fermented barley — they were supposed to be served in a liquid format too.
COLLINGHAM: To eat them, you would either dip them in a drink or you’d crumble them and add water to them. Or you could just pour water on them actually. And they hydrate and they’d looked like a soggy piece of bread.
GRABER: And these hard, dry, savory super long-lasting biscuits were really useful, everywhere people ate bread.
TWILLEY: People made biscuits to tide them over during the winter, Lizzie says the entire island of Santorini in Greece basically used to live on biscuits because they had so few trees to use to fuel their stoves that they couldn’t bake bread regularly.
TWILLEY: Sailors took biscuits out to sea, people took biscuits on long journeys as a portable snack.
COLLINGHAM: Roman soldiers carried them because they were lighter than carrying grain and easier to prepare.
GRABER: And in fact, the Romans were the ones who gave us the word biscuit. It comes from bis cuit, which means twice cooked in French, and that comes from the Latin panis biscoctus, twice cooked bread. Because the bread had to be cooked twice for storage. I promise we’ll get to the origin of the words cookie and cracker too.
TWILLEY: But at this point in history, they were all called biscuits. And all biscuits were plain.
COLLINGHAM: When did they add sugar to them? It’s Muslim bakers. In Iraq, it’s in Baghdad actually.
GRABER: Sugar refining started in India about 2500 years ago, but it spread from there to the Arab world, and then they perfected the art of transforming cane juice into crystals in the 700s and 800s, and so this is where sugar really took off. It was even recommended by doctors at the time for health reasons.
COLLINGHAM: And, sugar in this period is seen as a kind of almost perfect food. So they started adding sugar to virtually everything.
TWILLEY: Including, in a world first, to biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: And that’s when you get the first sweet biscuits.
GRABER: Weirdly, and tragically, you couldn’t have made biscuits sweet before people perfected crystalized sugarcane. Because the primary sweetener had been honey beforehand—
COLLINGHAM: And that’s no good because honey attracts water.
COLLINGHAM: So very quickly, your lovely, dry rusks would have got soggy and wet and damp and moldy. So that’s no good. You couldn’t make sweet rusks. With honey.
COLLINGHAM: But if you added sugar to the bread dough and then dried it out in the oven that worked perfectly, you could still preserve those biscuits for a very long time.
TWILLEY: This was a major leap forward for biscuits. They went from dried up beer bouillon cubes to sweet, crunchy treats. But they still weren’t really like the cookies we know and love today.
COLLINGHAM: They made them into rings that you could kind of put on a string? And these were the kind of hard doughnut-y type things.
COLLINGHAM: Imagine a kind of hard sweet bagel, really.
GRABER: But hard sweet bagels, as, uh, tempting as that sounds, that’s not really the pinnacle of cookie perfection.
TWILLEY: You can still buy that kind of hard sweetish ring cookie in Italy today and honestly it is a major disappointment if you’re actually looking for a cookie.
GRABER: So bakers in the Arab world started to get creative.
COLLINGHAM: So quite often they would add things like fruit and nuts. So figs and almonds, chopped almonds and so on. Those would have been the earliest fig rolls.
TWILLEY: These newfangled sweet and fruity biscuits were a big hit. Cairo had its own dedicated bazaar just for biscuits. And sugar was seen as so healthy that eating biscuits was basically preventative medicine, which is still kind of how I think about it today.
GRABER: And of course because these new cookies were so tasty, they spread with travelers on the Silk Road, both east and west. Going eastward, they’d have reached all the way into what’s now the Uighur region, right where the cookie-filled tomb was found.
COLLINGHAM: What happened is then of course, the Arabs moved into the Mediterranean area. Eventually they occupied Sicily and so on. And so they took the art of sugarcane growing and refining sugar and the art of confectionary with them.
COLLINGHAM: And these biscuits then traveled to Italy.
COLLINGHAM: And by the time we get to the Italian Renaissance, biscuits start to appear in Italian Renaissance feasts at the end of the meal.
COLLINGHAM: And that’s sort of how biscuits first come into European cuisine really, that you eat them at the end of a meal.
TWILLEY: Like we said, these biscuits were sweet and hard, but often they were flavored — sometimes with cinnamon or nutmeg, sometimes even musk.
COLLINGHAM: So very spicy as well.
COLLINGHAM: Not chili heat, but it’s kind of spicy heat in your mouth.
GRABER: There were nunneries in Italy and Spain that specialized in their own cookies, a lot of them you can still find in those nunneries today. Lizzie says it was probably in Catalonia in Spain that they started whipping eggs into cookie dough. People were really going to town, these new foods were so exciting and adaptable.
TWILLEY: And gradually they spread northward through Europe, and reached Britain, which is my original homeland and the modern biscuit’s too.
COLLINGHAM: And so, biscuits enter England, in a kind of medicinal manual, it’s got a lovely title. It’s called the secrets of Alexius of Pimon.
COLLINGHAM: And it has recipes for creams against the stench of your toes. And, how to make gold, find gold with salamanders and things like that.
COLLINGHAM: It’s an incredible book, but it also has a recipe for mostaccioli, which if you make it turns out these hard brown biscuits.
GRABER: The biscuit was still in this strange gray zone between medicine and dessert, and it was of course mostly for the elite who could afford both sugar and spices.
TWILLEY: But no elite banquet was really complete without a biscuit or two served at the end
COLLINGHAM: You might dip them in your creams and things like that, or dip them in sweet wine.
TWILLEY: Remember, these are not the crumbly or soft, squidgy biscuits we know and love today. These are twice baked jaw breakers.
COLLINGHAM: When I was trying doing the book, I tried out lots of 17th century biscuit recipes. Many of them were utterly disastrous.
COLLINGHAM: Especially the ones with coriander seeds in there were really revolting.
GRABER: But then Lizzie tried out a British recipe for a particular type of hard biscuit that would have been served at funerals along with wine—
COLLINGHAM: And they are delicious if you dip them in sherry, I have to say that has become a new habit of mine.
TWILLEY: Hashtag best life. But the biscuit itself still had miles to go. Literally.
COLLINGHAM: Well, the ship’s biscuits, obviously that’s key to exploration.
GRABER: We mentioned that biscuits were important for sailors, but they were truly essential during the age of exploration in the 1400s and onwards, those European explorers could not have survived their journeys without a storable, durable carb.
COLLINGHAM: So biscuits enable exploration and long ocean voyages.
TWILLEY: The British Navy relied on biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: And, you know, you have all these lovely descriptions of how disgusting they were.
GRABER: Even though biscuits were super durable, if they were stored in a really humid environment like on a ship, they’d start to soften, and then they’d get moldy, and little beetles called weevils that love flour would start multiplying fruitfully.
COLLINGHAM: And there’s a lovely description of, Banks said that before the captain’s table eat their biscuits, they put them in an oven. And so that encourages all the weevils to crawl out of the biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: But the poor old sailors had to eat them with the weevils or still in, they tasted kind of bitter and like really disgusting.
COLLINGHAM: Or they’d have maggots. And they tasted like cold blancmange.
TWILLEY: Blancmange is a cold pudding of milk thickened with a starch of some sort and it is the stuff of nightmares, truly one of Britain’s worst desserts.
COLLINGHAM: So really horrible.
COLLINGHAM: But anyway, these biscuits were kind of very important, even though they were going moldy. They’re still good enough to keep you going around the world.
TWILLEY: I don’t know, I feel like I would have gone home.
GRABER: Well, the sailors were made of sterner stuff, or they didn’t have a choice. But they did have a choice of how to eat the biscuits. We said before that you’d rehydrate these super hard biscuits in boiling hot water. Lizzie says if you added some salt, you’d have biscuit soup.
COLLINGHAM: Doesn’t sound very delicious. But then you could add kind of whatever vegetables you had on hand, you could add bits of meat.
TWILLEY: Sailors liked to add the fat that rose to the top when the cook boiled salt beef — it was called slush. Cooks, on the other hand, tended to save the slush and sell it to candle makers when they got back to shore, thus making a handy little profit. It was their slush fund.
GRABER: I’m now going to picture all the rich folks with their rainy day slush funds, or the folks with their black market slush funds for bribery, they all have just vats of boiled beef scum.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile these poor sailors back in the 1600s had to make do with un-slushy biscuit stew.
COLLINGHAM: It was known as lobscouse.
TWILLEY: Meaning hot pot or stew. Curiously this word originally seems to come from a Latvian dish called labs kauss which translates as good bowl.
COLLINGHAM: And then of course for English people would be very familiar with the fact that people in Liverpool were called Scousers that’s because the dock workers also would eat this kind of lobscouse.
COLLINGHAM: That was their staple food for their diets. And so they became known as Scousers.
GRABER: In America, lobscouse was called chowder, which comes from a French word for the cauldron that it was cooked in.
COLLINGHAM: There’s a big debate about whether you should add crackers or not, or what kind of crackers to chowder. That’s because the first settlers who went over from, from England, to America, the New England area. Of course they, survived on biscuits and they made a version of scouse and that eventually turned into chowder.
COLLINGHAM: So that’s why you put biscuits or crackers as you would call them into chowder.
GRABER: Even though today they’re the crumbly kind not the hard kind and I never could understand why someone would pollute delicious chowder with them.
TWILLEY: Honestly, all of this weevil filled biscuit soup and hard spicy rusks — it’s just not particularly appetizing. But never fear: the biscuit is about to have its makeover and emerge as both a *truly* delicious snack and the world’s first industrial food.
GRABER: So let’s set the scene for the next stage in cookie evolution. We’re in England, in the 1700s.
COLLINGHAM: Britain has the biggest navy in the world. And they’ve set up all these Naval dock yards where they make their own biscuits.
GRABER: As we’ve made abundantly clear, these biscuits were absolutely essential. And so every navy yard had its own little biscuit factory onsite.
COLLINGHAM: And these places they’ve become very efficient. They have a kind of assembly line.
TWILLEY: And yet still they could not make biscuits fast enough for all the ships and all the sailors. But by the early 1800s, Britain had entered the age of steam. Steam trains, steam ships and steam powered biscuit making machinery.
COLLINGHAM: By 1820, 1830, one of the superintendents of one of these naval shipyard bakeries, he invents a method for steam-powered biscuit making machinery.
COLLINGHAM: So he works out how to make a machine that will mix the dough and another to roll it out between two—they looked like huge rolling pins.
COLLINGHAM: And it cuts down the price and it means that they can make biscuits very efficiently and quickly.
COLLINGHAM: Biscuits are the first food to be made according to this industrial steam powered machinery.
GRABER: Steam-powered industrial biscuits! What a revelation! And these newfangled ones were a little different.
COLLINGHAM: They’re not like ships rusks, they’re not like a bread dough that’s sliced and then dried. They’re actually, they make it into a kind of dough and then roll the dough out.
TWILLEY: They’re made deliberately as flat biscuits, as opposed to twice cooked sliced bread.
GRABER: The first guy who made industrial navy biscuits didn’t take his enterprise any further, but he did publish details of his machinery in scientific journals.
COLLINGHAM: Then what happens is two bakers in Britain introduce these machinery into their own, private factories. So Carrs of Carlisle, he makes bread and ships biscuits, and he introduces his own machines.
COLLINGHAM: And then Huntley and Palmers, actually there are bakers in Reading. They set up the very first factory that’s intended entirely to make just biscuits.
TWILLEY: These new commercial biscuits were much more like the kind of cracker you can still buy to eat with cheese. If you go to the shops today, you can actually buy Carr’s of Carlisle’s Water Biscuits, or Water Crackers as they’re called in the US.
GRABER: And they had their sights set beyond the savory market. Sweet biscuits, or as I’d call them cookies, they were already really popular, but they were a specialty food. These two companies both decided to expand and make sweet biscuits too.
TWILLEY: They may have been industrially produced but these new factory made sweet biscuits were still far from cheap.
COLLINGHAM: Only the middling classes and upper classes can really afford biscuits. I mean, you think about it. Even ginger nuts, which are the cheapest biscuits you can get, that would cost sixpence a pound.
COLLINGHAM: That’s far too much when you’re living on a wage where you might get 11 pence a day or something.
COLLINGHAM: So you can’t, most many people in Britain, certainly not the people who are making the biscuits in the factories could afford them.
GRABER: But there was an emerging middle class in England, and they could afford these biscuits.
TWILLEY: And, in part because of industrialization and the urbanization that came with it, these newly middle class individuals now had a biscuit-shaped hole in their daily schedule.
COLLINGHAM: So it used to be that you would eat your main meal of the day, your dinner at what we would think of as lunchtime.
COLLINGHAM: And then as the working day lengthens dinner gets pushed until it’s later and later and later.
TWILLEY: Which left people hungry in the middle of the day. Time for a biscuit!
GRABER: So now there’s machinery and a growing market and biscuit-centered eating times, and the companies making those biscuits went wild.
COLLINGHAM: They had hundreds and hundreds of different types of biscuits. I think at some point, Huntley and Palmer’s make 354 different lines of biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: There were all kinds. They made yachting biscuits and excursion biscuits for taking with you on a bicycle trip, or once cars come in, they made motoring biscuits. I mean, we’ve lost all kinds of different biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: They named all kinds of biscuits after celebrities. So Sarah Bernhardt biscuits and so on.
COLLINGHAM: The mind boggles, cause you think with, you know, flour, sugar, eggs, butter, how can you make that many different combinations of flavors? How can they all have tasted so very different.
TWILLEY: Honestly, they probably didn’t. But as the biscuit century wore on, there really was some innovation in biscuit flavor — jam fillings, cream fillings
COLLINGHAM: And, Cadbury’s, I think, are the first to invent chocolate biscuit. They’re the first company where you can find on their lists, a chocolate biscuit being advertised.
COLLINGHAM: So they actually add cocoa powder to the dough. So it’s a chocolate, the actual biscuit itself is flavored with chocolate. And then they pour chocolate over it. And it becomes, it’s chocolate encased.
GRABER: The Cadbury’s cocoa-powder chocolate biscuit sounds genuinely delicious, but it didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t take off.
COLLINGHAM: But Huntley and Palmer’s, then, a few years later have the idea that they could send some of their biscuits to the Cadbury’s factory and have them coated with chocolate. And that’s when chocolate biscuits start to get going.
COLLINGHAM: And then it becomes a craze.
TWILLEY: But still only for those with a little extra disposable income. A biscuit slush fund, if you will.
COLLINGHAM: They’re becoming more and more universal in the 1930s, but it’s not until the second world war that they really become truly democratized.
GRABER: The second world war. I feel like a broken record here, I can’t even count the number of times we’ve said that when it comes to food, the second world war changed everything. But it did—and for biscuits, too.
COLLINGHAM: Obviously sugar rations are cut. And before that, the poor really, really relied on sweet tea, the sugar in their tea to give them energy. And obviously during the second world war you can’t really afford, there’s not enough sugar to put, to sweeten your tea. So tea was never sweet enough for most people during the second world war.
TWILLEY: But the biscuit factories were allowed a certain amount of sugar so they could keep the biscuit production lines rolling.
COLLINGHAM: And so it becomes a kind of natural thing, if you want some sweetness with your tea, to have a biscuit. So you eat your sweetness with your tea rather than putting it in your tea.
COLLINGHAM: And then by the end of the second world, it becomes absolutely natural to reach for the biscuit tin, when you put the kettle on.
GRABER: The British companies did dramatically reduce the sheer variety of cookies they were making—who needs 354 different cookies from one company? But the biscuits themselves were still super important. They became kind of an all-purpose dessert.
COLLINGHAM: Yeah. They become a kind of, a substitute. So during the second world war, particularly, you know, you might’ve had, for lunch, I don’t know, some trifle for pudding. But obviously you can’t have trifle for pudding. So you have a kind of fancy biscuit and it, it stands in for pudding.
TWILLEY: Another translator’s note here: pudding means dessert in England as well as lots of other things. We made an entire episode about the wonders of British pudding with the help of several Great British Bake Off stars and you should definitely listen to it. But back to biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: They become a stand in for cakes they’re often put in children’s lunchboxes instead of a cake. You might give the cake to the husband and the children get a biscuit.
COLLINGHAM: And so they become a kind of substitute way of eating fancier food. They kind of represent the idea of fancy food.
GRABER: By this point, after the second world war, biscuits were thoroughly democratized. And they also spread around the world. British industrial biscuits first crossed the channel over to Europe, but they also traveled on British ships to the colonies, which as you listeners know ranged from east Asia to India to the Americas. Yes, that’s right, the sun never set on the British Empire.
TWILLEY: Or its biscuits.
COLLINGHAM: So biscuits get everywhere and that’s how biscuits become really associated with the British.
GRABER: And of course they ended up here in my homeland, the United States of America, before it was America, and they were once again transformed in both name and essence and even size. As many things are in America — that story, coming up after the break.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever come across a cookie you didn’t like?
COOKIE MONSTER: Oh… have me ever had a cookie me never like? You know what, no. Me welcome all cookies. And biscuits!
COOKIE MONSTER: Yeah. Jammy dodgers, hobnobs, shortbread… me even take a jaffa cake.
GRABER: Cookie monster does not discriminate, he is into all of them, whether you call them cookies or biscuits, like you do, Nicky.
TWILLEY: Listen, Mr. Monster, we do have the word cookie in the UK. You can go into bakeries and buy squidgy American style cookies. But those are different to what we think of as biscuits — like an Oreo to me would be a biscuit, because it’s hard and comes in a packet. That’s the logic.
GRABER: Okay, so what you’re saying is in the UK, biscuits are hard and come in packages and they can be either savory or sweet.
TWILLEY: That is what I am saying. So you have tea and biscuits but you also have biscuits and cheese, where you might serve your brie and cheddar with say a cream cracker
GRABER: That makes no sense. So you have savory and sweet biscuits, but you also have savory crackers.
TWILLEY: We contain multitudes.
GRABER: In America, it’s really clear. Cookies are sweet, they can be soft or crunchy. Crackers are savory and crispy. And biscuits are big and fluffy and savory and maybe you eat them as a sandwich with an egg in them.
TWILLEY: Which is utterly mindboggling to British people as was proven when the very first British outlet of the fried chicken chain Popeyes opened in London last year
JESS: Hi, I’m Jess from the Sun, and I’m here at Popeye’s new store in Westfield Stratford to get a sneak peek at the new menu before they open.
GRABER: The Sun is a tabloid newspaper, and for its reviewer Jess, the fried chicken wasn’t a shock, fried chicken is fried chicken.
JESS: But this is the kind of signature thing that’s really popular in the US, which is a biscuit. It’s a savory biscuit, and it kind of looks more like a scone. It does have that kind of scone texture but it doesn’t taste like a cake.
TWILLEY: Deeply confusing. The New York Times was on the scene, and quoted one befuddled Brit who asked “Why are you giving me a scone with chicken? I have no idea what you are doing.”
GRABER: We’re going to leave scones aside for the moment, but the question of where these words come from — even though British biscuits were here in the colonies first, the Dutch in New Amsterdam, otherwise known as New York, they brought their own cookie culture and they left their mark on the language.
COLLINGHAM: Of course the Dutch referred to them as cookya.
COLLINGHAM: I can’t really pronounce, my Dutch accent is rubbish. But cookya becomes cookie and so that it’s a Dutch word for biscuit. That’s how it comes about.
TWILLEY: Lizzie says it’s likely that the word cracker also came from the Dutch, from knäckebröd, which means crisp bread, like a twice-baked piece of bread. Or you know, biscuit.
GRABER: And then there’s what we call biscuits in America—
COLLINGHAM: The first colonists bring out their biscuit bread recipes, right? And so biscuit bread, before you make it into the hard rusks, it can be a kind of a, like a soft, sweet bread roll. And then the idea is that you would dry it out in the oven.
COLLINGHAM: And then when they bring those biscuit bread recipes over to America, it’s particularly in the south, they start adding potash to them so that they rise nicely.
GRABER: Potash is a kind of early baking soda and it’s made from the ashes of trees like elm and maple. The colonists seem to have learned about making potash from Native Americans, and versions of it were useful in making soap, and fertilizer, and as a way to help your dough rise.
COLLINGHAM: So then you’ve got a kind of scone. And then they don’t, they don’t dry them and make them into rusks, which sometimes they did.
COLLINGHAM: But other times you would just make biscuit bread like that, and then serve that with your gravy or whatever. And so that’s how the word biscuit stays attached to it.
TWILLEY: So a biscuit in the US is made of savory biscuit dough — but it’s only once baked — uno scuit. Or, actually, in French simple cuit. See. It all makes sense.
GRABER: And now that it all makes sense, it might not be surprising that the first American cookies were in fact called biscuits.
TWILLEY: Which is why America’s largest cookie company is the National Biscuit Company, better known these days as Nabisco.
GRABER: The different companies that eventually joined together to form Nabisco started off making the standard hard savory biscuits, or crackers, that were good for journeys. And that’s where we got the name Cracker Barrel, like the restaurant.
STELLA PARKS: It’s a barrel full of crackers. It’s, fortunately we don’t have to deal with any kind of super complex etymology here.
PARKS: These barrels will be brought along on sea voyages or on caravans heading, you know, out to the west coast.
TWILLEY: This is Stella Parks, she’s a pastry chef and the author of BraveTart: Iconic American desserts.
GRABER: Some of the companies that eventually became Nabisco, once there wasn’t as much of a need for these types of hard functional yet boring crackers, they turned to making more delicate fun things, like animal crackers — yes, they’re called crackers — and nilla wafers.
TWILLEY: And then, in 1908, an iconic embossed chocolate sandwich cookie filled with a vanilla fondant creme entered the scene.
PARKS: The Hydrox is the, kind of, the OG fancy cookie in America.
GRABER: You heard that right, the original fancy cream-filled cookie is NOT the Oreo, it is the Hydrox.
PARKS: It was two chocolate wafers that were… delicately embossed with this beautifully elaborate design of a laurel wreath and scrollwork and flowers,
PARKS: And yeah, like that kind of cookie was absolutely brand new to the scene. Whereas things like, you know, animal crackers, vanilla wafers, Graham crackers, et cetera, were very familiar to the American public.
TWILLEY: Hydrox cookies were made by a company called Loose Wiles, which… no comment. And Loose Wiles called Hydrox Hydrox after hydrogen and oxygen, to try to communicate this sort of better cookie through chemistry modern vibe, at a time when most cookies were sold loose out of grimy barrels in grimy stores.
TWILLEY: And these beautiful modern new Hydrox cookies were an immediate hit with the American cookie consumer.
PARKS: Oh, they were wildly popular.
PARKS: And the advertisements for them kind of really presented them as, as this work of art. And this kind of thing that, if you’re going to have company over, this was like the perfect, dainty treat to pull out, to serve with coffee. And just, creme de la creme, the peak of sophistication.
GRABER: And when something new is this popular, it inspires knock-offs.
TWILLEY: One of those knockoffs was a cookie you may have heard of: the Oreo, Nabisco introduced it in 1912.
PARKS: You know when Oreos were first introduced. They were definitely \ like, noticeably less elaborate.
PARKS: So it was just, from a visual standpoint, it didn’t look quite as impressive. And it was also, you know, the newcomer on the scene. And so it didn’t have that kind of history behind it.
GRABER: At first, Oreos didn’t sell so well. Ads from the time even make that point.
PARKS: One of the quotes from one of these advertisements was, you know, to explain why the Oreos weren’t selling. They said, it’s simply a case of you not knowing what a fine biscuit delicacy they are.
PARKS: And so it’s like basically just saying, like, you’ve never heard of a fricking Oreo in 1914, so they definitely kind of made a very small splash when they debuted.
TWILLEY: But Nabisco was and is the biggest cookie maker in America and they were in it to win it.
PARKS: It wasn’t a total David and Goliath situation, but, but Nabisco was the bigger company and they had the deeper pockets.
GRABER: Nabisco was able to sell Oreos for less money, and they kept spending money on advertising, and Hydrox’s ads started to sound a little pissy.
PARKS: There was one where it was like a little bear who was crying. It was like, somebody stole my cookie.
PARKS: Like they’re being stolen from little children or something, but it’s really kind of a meta level commentary from loose Wiles saying, you know, Nabisco’s stealing our cookie.
PARKS: But like this kind of advertisement, you know, is like totally tone deaf to the customer base who don’t know anything about this and don’t care. They just want a cookie that’s delicious.
PARKS: And so Oreo’s advertisements were all just pure fun and sunshine, like enjoy this crisp and delicious cookie with a creamy filling. Like. It’s so much fun. You’re going to love an oreo.
PARKS: And so eventually the kind of the tables turned and then suddenly it was like, Hydrox is this overpriced, you know, piece of crap from yesteryear. And all the cool kids are eating Oreos now.
ANNOUNCER: [SINGING] Oh, Oh, Oh, who’s that kid with the oreo cookie? Lickin up the creamy middle like she did when she was little.
ANNOUNCER: It’s hard to hide the kid inside when you’re crunching, O-R-E-O!
TWILLEY: You cannot blame Hydrox for being a little upset about all this. Especially because Stella thinks the Oreo’s name was a deliberate dig.
GRABER: There are all sorts of theories about where the name oreo comes from. One thought is that it comes from the word orexigenic, which is something that gives you the munchies. Then there’s the idea that the two Os in oreos represent the two round cookies, and the RE was for cream. But Stella found something else.
PARKS: If you just look at Nabisco’s product line around the time that Oreos were released, they kind of had this botanical bent to them.
PARKS: They had cookies that were called like Lotus, which is obviously a flower.
TWILLEY: They had Aveena cookies, from Aveno, the Latin name for oats, they had Ramona cookies, from the botanical name for buttercups, they had cookies named after lily flowers and canola plants and more.
PARKS: So there’s like all these, like kind of…play on words like botanical terms. And so when you look at it through that lens, the Hydrox cookie, had a Laurel wreath designed on it.
PARKS: And the botanical name for mountain laurel is Oreo Daphne. And so to me, that’s like open and shut.
GRABER: Yes, it looks like oreos got their name from the botanical word for the plant embossed on a Hydrox.
TWILLEY: Which is just kind of rude.
GRABER: Hydrox held on against Oreos, just barely, through the 80s and 90s — they were particularly popular among Jews who kept kosher because Oreos had lard in them until the mid 90s. But we always felt kind of like we were buying the knock-off. Even though now I know Oreos were actually the knock-off.
TWILLEY: Eventually Hydrox was bought by Kellogg’s—
PARKS: Who continued manufacturing them for the sole purpose of selling them as off-brand cookies for off-brand cookies and cream, for companies that didn’t want to pay the marketing rights to use Oreo.
PARKS: Which is just, that is a real womp womp, kind of sad trombone.
TWILLEY: In recent years, there has been an attempt to bring back the Hydrox, but then the company ended up suing the makers of Oreos for conspiring to hide Hydrox from consumers on supermarket shelves. The struggle is clearly still real.
GRABER: Oreos today are the most popular cookie brand in the US, but they are not actually the most popular cookie of all.
WYMAN: Chocolate chip cookies are my favorite food, by far. If you did an archeological dig of my life, you would find remnants of having eaten all sorts of chocolate chip cookies, all over, wherever I could find them at all levels.
TWILLEY: Carolyn Wyman is the author of the Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book and she is an unashamed evangelist for the cookie that is both her and America’s favorite: the chocolate chip.
WYMAN: They just taste great. I mean, they have all the building blocks of a great tasting food, basically, you know, sugar, salt, fat.
WYMAN: But also like a lot of people, I have an association of making them at home as a kid and my mom making them. I mean, it was basically the only cookie my mom ever made.
WYMAN: You know, she worked and she wasn’t cooking a lot except from convenience foods, but this was, you know, something that she made from scratch taught me how to make from scratch. And so I have all those incredible positive associations of the rainy day, having the chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.
GRABER: I am already getting hungry. But as popular as they are today, Americans haven’t been eating chocolate chip cookies for all that long.
WYMAN: A lot of people are surprised today because you know, we think it’s, that they haven’t been around forever because they are kind of ubiquitous now, but.
WYMAN: They were invented, um, actually within some peoples who are still around lifetime, in 1938.
TWILLEY: This is the standard chocolate chip cookie invention story: America’s favorite cookie — the pinnacle of cookie kind, according to many cookie fans — it was created entirely by accident by a woman named Ruth Wakefield.
PARKS: And the story goes that while she was mixing some kind of regular cookie dough, somehow, like, a box of chocolate fell off a shelf and like landed in her mixing bowl, and you know, woopsie Daisy, like cookies were invented.
PARKS: It was kind of like, to me, this is a very patronizing and insulting story because Ruth Wakefield was, you know, a bestselling cookbook author, an entrepreneur, a very successful business woman, incredibly savvy with, you know, decades of experience in the kitchen.
PARKS: And so to attribute this really successful dessert that she did have at her restaurant to just like pure accident or happenstance, they’re kind of like, painting this picture that she’s just, you know, some kind of like, oh, she’s some ditsy housewife.
GRABER: So let’s take a closer look at this story. Ruth was definitely no ditsy accidental baker. She had a college degree, and her husband was an executive at a meat packing company.
WYMAN: And, you know, like these two crazy young kids decided to quit their jobs right after the stock market crash and the Depression and start their own restaurant.
TWILLEY: Their restaurant was the Toll House Inn, and as the name implies, it was on a toll road.
WYMAN: It was at the time on the road between Boston and Cape Cod. Like if you were going to vacation on the Cape, it was right along the way. So a lot of people stopped. And it also, you know, all the celebrities passing through New England stopped there as well.
GRABER: It became super popular, it was kind of a fancy-ish restaurant. And Ruth became particularly famous for her desserts.
WYMAN: Desserts were great there. And important. She liked to make desserts. Some of the waitresses who used to work there, you know, I’m like wanting to talk about the chocolate chip cookie.
WYMAN: And they’re like, well, you know, she made really good, uh, you know, lemon meringue pie and Indian pudding. And, and especially, they talked about this butterscotch nut, like, roll that they served in the bread basket. Several of the waitresses said, oh, that was more popular than the chocolate chip cookie by far.
WYMAN: Because actually, the chocolate chip cookie was literally a giveaway at that restaurant. It was put by the side of an ice cream.
TWILLEY: Originally, when you ordered a dish of ice cream for dessert at the Toll House Inn, the cookie that came on the side was kind of a plain butterscotch crispy wafer cookie.
GRABER: And Ruth deliberately upped that ice cream accompaniment game. Despite all the legends about how the cookie might have come about, that the chocolate accidentally fell in her bowl, or that she’d run out of butter and thought the fat in the chocolate could work instead, or she ran out of time to melt chocolate for a chocolate cookie so she just threw the bits in thinking they’d melt — none of those are true.
WYMAN: I finally found some articles where she talked about how that cookie came to be. Every January they closed the restaurant down, you know, and they would travel.
WYMAN: And a lot of it involved eating, going to restaurants and getting restaurant ideas. And Ruth would come back and she would always have new dishes that she would introduce or tweaks to things.
WYMAN: And she told one reporter in the seventies that she basically came up with this idea, you know, on a flight home from Egypt.
TWILLEY: So all those stories about the chocolate chip cookie being invented by accident are totally not true. But, also, while we’re busting cookie myths, it wasn’t invented by Ruth!
PARKS: I think there’s a lot of evidence to point to these cookies existing prior to the date that her recipe was published.
TWILLEY: No one knows exactly when Ruth substituted her new chocolate chip cookie for the old butterscotch one, but we do know when she published the recipe for it — 1938. And Stella has found evidence for chocolate chip cookies going back all the way to 1928.
PARKS: There was an advertisement for chocolate chip cookies being sold by the pound at a grocery store in Wisconsin.
PARKS: Kroger’s throughout Ohio, for example, had full page ads for chocolate chip cookies. And they were often sold by the pound.
GRABER: Basically, there were plenty of chocolate chip cookies around *before* Ruth published her recipe.
PARKS: So it looks like in the 1930s, many types of supermarkets — Buy-Rite, IGA, Kroger, et cetera, were selling chocolate chip cookies and had advertisements for chocolate chip cookies that you can look up in newspaper archives.
TWILLEY: And these precedent-creating chocolate chip cookies actually had an earlier ancestor, the chocolate jumble. Which in turn was a variation on an existing recipe, the jumble.
TWILLEY: Stella says the jumble was kind of a basic drop cookie with whatever you had handy thrown in — nuts, lemon zest, spices, dried fruit — or chocolate shavings, shaved off of the new and exciting chocolate bars that were just hitting grocery store shelves in the early 1900s.
PARKS: And so this was just like, an easy way to incorporate chocolate into a dough, a small amount of chocolate into a larger amount of dough. So you would have had, you know, your bar of chocolate and they would have put it over a rasp or a grater the way you would like grate up nutmeg or something.
PARKS: So initially chocolate jumbles would have just been kind of plain drop cookies with shaved chocolate mixed in.
GRABER: Chocolate was expensive at the time, so grating just a little chocolate in, to flavor the cookie, it made sense. The problem was, grating chocolate takes a lot of time.
PARKS: You know, this recipe for chocolate jumbles calls for two cups of grated chocolate. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had a grate chocolate for anything like to put it on top of tiramisu, for example, it’s a real pain in the butt to grate that much chocolate.
TWILLEY: But by the 1930s, the price of chocolate had come down quite a bit.
PARKS: And I think someone in the kitchen who is being very pragmatic, was like, you know, this is going to take forever. I’m going to chop it.
PARKS: I think and that’s how chocolate chip cookies were invented, that someone just decided as a shortcut I’m going to chop the chocolate instead.
TWILLEY: OK so the true chocolate chip cookie origin story is not so much an accident as just laziness. I love it. Much more relatable.
GRABER: And the cookie itself was totally transformed by this laziness. The thing is, grating two cups of chocolate doesn’t take much actual chocolate, but two cups chopped is a lot more, so the cookies were changed from lightly chocolate flavored to things with these bits liberally sprinkled throughout.
GRABER: Plus, these chopped bits didn’t melt into the dough like the grated chocolate did, they melted a bit, but they’re big enough so that they don’t melt all the way throughout the dough.
TWILLEY: And people started calling these bits of chopped chocolate, chocolate “chips.”
PARKS: If you think of, like, when you think of the word chip, you think of like potato chips, wood chips, whatever, you’re talking about, like thin shavings of something, like little irregular pieces.
PARKS: And they’re initially called chocolate chip cookies because the chocolate bars were chipped into bits to be mixed into the dough.
TWILLEY: Although Ruth originally called her cookies Chocolate Crunch cookies. And Stella says that Ruth’s cookies were actually a little different from the other chocolate chip cookies around at the time.
PARKS: I think her recipe kind of had a greater ratio of brown sugar in the mix and maybe fewer eggs. So this would have dialed it back from the cakier type of cookie. And it would have brought in a little bit of the chewiness we know today.
GRABER: Ruth’s chewier, more butterscotch-y cookies are the original recipe from which today’s chocolate chip cookies really developed. That’s partly because of these delicious tweaks, and partly because she was a great business woman.
PARKS: You know when I say, I don’t believe that Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie. I certainly don’t mean to throw her under the bus or downplay her efforts because, being the person who popularized them and being the person who developed a recipe that is still in use nearly a hundred years later, is incredibly impressive.
WYMAN: Can you say that any one food product was made by any one person?
WYMAN: But the difference was that Ruth Wakefield, you know, owned a restaurant. She wrote cookbooks. So. She certainly gets credit for making it really, really popular and being the ambassador of the chocolate cookie.
TWILLEY: Carolyn says that, as these new cookies caught on, Ruth started giving out the recipe to local newspapers, and it got into the Boston Globe’s popular recipe swap column. And Ruth’s chocolate chip cookies became so frequently baked by home bakers that Nestlé quite quickly started scoring lines into their chocolate bars to make chipping them up easier.
GRABER: When Ruth was about to publish the fourth edition of her already popular cookbook, her publisher got in touch with Nestlé, and they agreed that Nestlé would put the recipe on the package as kind of a national book promo.
PARKS: It wasn’t really an aw shucks situation. It was very much a professional endeavor by a very savvy business woman.
TWILLEY: To go with the new Toll House recipe, Nestlé decided to make cookie maker’s lives even easier and turn their bars into identical teardrop shaped morsels.
WYMAN: These morsels, these chocolate chips, they’re pretty much the, the only, certainly the only really highly successful food product that was made just for a specific recipe.
KIDS: [SINGING] America’s favorite cookie… break.
ANNOUNCER: You can only bake them with Nestle toll house morsels and the original recipe.
KIDS: Is it time to bake the only cookie that makes…
GIRL: I’m busy!
KIDS: Americas favorite cookie, break.
GRABER: This successful product and recipe has now been used by generations of home bakers. Today there are plenty of versions of chocolate chip cookies you can buy or make, but the Toll House recipe on the package is still the classic.
TWILLEY: It’s a biscuit that isn’t a stand-in for something better — a biscuit that is the pinnacle of deliciousness on its own. The cookie has really come a long way since its rusk-like origins,
GRABER: But some things never change. For one they’re still often enjoyed with a liquid.
TWILLEY: A nice cup of tea in the UK.
GRABER: Or a cold glass of milk in the US. Carolyn told us she has a chocolate chip cookie this way at least once a day, if not more.
WYMAN: Literally, I mean, I’m like, you know, not a young person, but I still have cookies and milk before I go to bed.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Lizzie Collingham, Stella Parks, Carolyn Wyman, and Yu-Ping, we have links to their books and to photos of the ancient cookies we saw at the British Museum on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks as always to our producer, Claudia Geib. And we’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another brand new episode for you.