Stupid Question ™
March 21, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: What the heck is a “Toll House morsel”? What does a toll house have to do with chocolate chips?
—Stephen D., Ohio
A: Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels are those chocolate chips sold in bags for cooking purposes.
On each package is a good-sized picture of some kind of cottage, the words “Toll House,” and the slogan, “Since 1939.”
These days, “tolls” tend to conjure up an image of tossing change into a basket on a smoggy turnpike, not morsels of yummy chocolate. However, it was indeed an old toll house that spawned the modern chocolate chip, and reputedly the chocolate chip cookie, as well.
It all goes back to a 1709 toll house in what is now Whitman, Massachusetts, built along an early turnpike that is now Bedford Street. A toll house was something like a modern truck stop combined with a toll booth—you could not only pay your toll, but get a meal and lodgings, too.
The old property was bought in 1930 by Ruth Graves Wakefield and her husband Kenneth. They reopened it as an inn called, appropriately if not imaginatively, the Toll House Inn.
Ruth, a former home ec teacher, came up with the food for the place. As the legend goes, one day she decided to break up a bar of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate and toss it into the batter of her butter cookies.
She expected the chocolate to melt and swirl around in the batter, but the bits stayed in place instead. She liked it, so did everybody else, and the chocolate chip cookie was born. According to Nestle corporate history, Ruth’s recipe became a New England hit when it was published in several newspapers. Nestle noticed when its chocolate bar sales started going up.
It was Ruth, however, who had the smarts to go cut a deal with Nestle. She agreed to let them put the recipe on their chocolate bar wrappers as a sales-booster, while Nestle agreed to provide her with free chocolate for life.
The year 1939 comes in because that’s when Nestle got the bright idea to start selling actual chips instead of a chocolate bar you had to bust into pieces yourself. (Previously they had started selling the bars with score marks for breaking.) These chips were (and are) tiny versions of the shape known in the trade as a “kiss,” and were given the catchy name “morsels.”
The Toll House name was originally a sign of Nestle’s connection to the original chocolate chip. Now it’s just a kind of meaningless nostalgia, but still effective as the brand many people think of when it comes to buying “morsels.”
Free chocolate for life is a heck of a deal, but like all bargains with the devil, did not work out in the long run. Now Ruth is dead and the Toll House Inn is scattered ashes from a New Year’s Eve, 1984 blaze. But Nestle still gets to flog the name.
A Wendy’s fast-food restaurant now sits on the old Toll House Inn property. Wendy’s carries chocolate chip cookies in select stores—but, for the record, the Whitman franchise isn’t one of them.