Long Live These Chocolate Chips

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's just a lump of sugar, butter, flour and chocolate, yet my, oh my, how the American chocolate chip cookie satisfies. Humble, friendly, loyal, round (nature's most perfect shape), the chocolate chip cookie is your best friend in the world of food. It never lets you down. It has no natural enemy save the dieter, whose tangled love-hate relationship is, of course, stronger than mere affection. The chocolate chip cookie is nonshowbiz: It glitzeth not. It is a blessing, a reassurance in troubled times. "People don't know what to believe," theorizes Columbia University nutritionist Joan Gussow. "Therefore, we're very susceptible to things we can trust—like a little chocolate chip cookie." Chef and cookbook author Pierre Franey (The New York Times More Sixty-Minute Gourmet) suggests that "we all had cookies in our childhood kitchens; we would pass through and take one. To be able to pass by a store and take one is very comforting."

Ah, just so. So many people have been picking them up in cookie stores in recent years that the chocolate chip is becoming big time. The gourmet cookie boom, which began in the mid-'70s and now seems to have reached a frenzied peak, is an estimated $300 million annual business (mostly run by M.B.A.'s rather than sweet old ladies in aprons) within the $2.5 billion cookie industry. Says one industry watcher: "There's a resurgence in high-priced, childlike things for adults. We baby boomers have glamorized and up-scaled everything that's reminiscent of our precious childhoods, from blue jeans to television sets to cookies."

Indeed, while the homemade cookie and the supermarket cookie have long been staples, it is the upscale cookie—oversize, overdesigned, overpriced and available in only the finest stores—that has been booming. Nationwide, shops that sell only cookies are popping up in malls and on Main Street—has that happened to Jell-O or Twinkies? Regionally, aficionados boast of their preferred cookie's crunch, color and chocolate distribution as they would of a favorite wine. Has that happened to brownies or fruitcake?

Of course not. That's because the chocolate chip cookie, a native American, has come to symbolize the national spirit—bye-bye, apple pie. When the Canadian government helped six American diplomats escape from Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis, the Canadian Consul General in New York received a bag of chippers from two Americans with the legend: "Canadians are chocolate chip all the way." More recently a Michigan pharmacist sent 200 cookies to American Marines wounded in Lebanon, with the note, "Gentlemen, you have my prayers, support, and some of the best damned chocolate chip cookies I could lay my hands on." (They were Tom's Mom's brand, from Charlevoix, Mich.) In an attempt to clear the air about which boutique cookie best represents the nation both at home and abroad, PEOPLE imported samples of cookies from 10 cities selected in preliminary taste-offs by PEOPLE correspondents nationwide.

Among the finalists were the Original Toll House Cookies from the Toll House restaurant and bakery in Whitman, Mass., where the chocolate chip cookie was invented in the 1930s. Innkeeper Ruth Wakefield, the legend goes, was whipping up an experimental batch of butter cookies that called for melted chocolate. She chopped up a bar of semisweet chocolate with an ice pick and threw the pieces in; to her surprise they didn't melt, and a star was born. By the early 1940s the recipe had become so popular that Nestlé began producing chocolate chips and printed Mrs. Wakefield's recipe on the back of the bag. Today the Toll House Restaurant is owned by the Saccone family and ships its cookies to stores in 20 states.

Other well-known finalists included the aforementioned Tom's Mom's Cookies from Tom's Cafe in Charlevoix, a resort town on Lake Michigan. Originator Tom Kneeland, 34, whose cookies are dedicated to, not inspired by, his mother, once sent a batch to an aunt who is an executive secretary on the White House staff; the Reagans responded with a standing order for 15 dozen a month.

Mrs. Fields Cookies, begun in 1977 by a Palo Alto, Calif. bride out to satisfy her hubby's passion for chocolate, has moved to Park City, Utah and bubbled into a $30 million business in 135 stores. From Los Angeles came Famous Amos, the first widely marketed confection of the new trend, produced by former music agent Wally Amos, 47, and sold in food stores internationally. San Francisco sent a batch of Unknown Jerome's, named after an anonymous financial backer and owned by former comedy writer Andrew Johnson, 39, who hired a French pastry chef to concoct the recipe (Johnson hints they contain an aphrodisiac). The Washington, D.C. entry came from the Cookie Cafe, founded by Danny Koch, 28, who uses a recipe based on the local YWCA cookie, a traditional Washington favorite.

The final cookie judging (see boxes for results) was held in PEOPLE'S New York headquarters by a blue-ribbon panel of expert cookie lovers. The panel evaluated each cookie in a blind test, on a 1-to-5 scale (5 was tops), for appearance, texture, taste and chocolate. To ensure fairness for the cookies shipped to New York, all entrants were two days old. Pierre Franey worked with his cuffs rolled up. He analytically tore the cookies into small pieces, looked critically into the cracks and popped small bites into his mouth. Franey, who goes to tastings as often as other people take baths, scribbled quickly and confidently on his voting sheets and was always the first one done. Meanwhile he carried on a spirited conversation with NBC's Today show weatherman Willard Scott about farming, wine and food. "I've had no luck with my leeks," Scott complained. Both are passionate about nuts. At his Middleburg, Va. farm, said Scott, "We go out there and wrestle squirrels to the ground to get those nuts." He took big bites, a half cookie at a time, sipping coffee in between, and filled in his ballots with sure, bold strokes.

Billy Mack, 10, who plays Carl Grant Jr. on ABC's All My Children, confessed he doesn't know much about cookies, but he knows what he likes. Lustily he chomped into cookie No. 1, gulping milk to clear the palate, and refused to let go of the remains when the plates were cleared for the tasting of cookie No. 2. Only after cookie No. 3 did he wave away the crumbs.

Larry and Honey Zisman are the authors of a new recipe book called The 47 Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World. Allowed only one vote between them, they huddled in whispered conference before writing "a little too pale" of Tom's Mom's and "flavor peculiar" of the New York entry, David's walnut, raisin, chocolate and chocolate chunk. Parents of two cookie-happy teenagers, the Zismans compiled their recipe book after reviewing 3,000 recipes and claim they are still not tired of chocolate chip cookies. "We trained for this by eating 10 a day for a week," said Larry, a New Jersey market-research consultant. They chose ice water to clear their palates.

Mary Beth Clark, who looks like she has never eaten anything but celery sticks in her whole life, is proprietor of her own cooking school in New York and an expert in American cookery. She approached each cookie solemnly, with a serious sniff, then a ladylike crumbling between the fingers, then a delicate nibble. "The ideal chocolate chip cookie would be golden brown, eye appealing, and have pure ingredients and natural flavors, more vanilla than vanillin," she said. "It should not taste like raw dough."

After five cookies Scott asked for an Alka-Seltzer. At the end of the first round, consisting of 10 "classic" chocolate chips with standard batter, the judges proclaimed Famous Amos the informal winner. (It beat Mrs. Fields by just two points.) "My kind of cookie!" Scott had written on his ballot. He, Clark and the Zismans found the Amos too small, though; at two inches in diameter, it's only half the size of the others.

As the "novelty class" cookies—containing such exotica as white chocolate, raisins, rum and mint flavors—were served, Scott said, "We're getting jaded." Billy Mack passed up a peanut-butter chip cookie, being the only kid on earth who hates peanut butter. After cookie No. 18, he collapsed back in his chair with a gigantic sigh, tummy clutched. "I don't plan to eat dinner," he said. Somehow the stoic judges got through all 18 with at least some semblance of gusto. Clark and Franey seemed the least winded; the Zismans and Billy Mack even packed some to take home.

"The best cookies of all in the world," said Willard Scott, "are the ones my daughter Sally makes. They come out all uniform, with nice little air holes." The judges did agree on one more thing. They preferred the entire novelty class to the entire classic class. "The truth is," said Honey Zisman, "for the traditional cookie, you can't improve on homemade. So why try?"

Reported by PEGGY BRAWLEY in New York and bureau correspondents

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