The unknown women who changed coffee and cookies forever

By Ana Kinkaid, editor of the culinary magazine CONNECT

Urban legends prevalent in the culinary world often credit innovation and creativity to mere chance. This is especially true when it is women who are the culinary innovators. Consider the misplaced history of Ruth Graves Wakefield and Melitta Bentz, whose creativity and perseverance created the ever-popular chocolate chip cookie and smooth filtered coffee.

Culinary lore often relates that Ruth Graves Wakefield, a cook in a rural country inn, invented the chocolate chip cookie by mistake with little to no planning when the shortage of one ingredient led to the substitution of another. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wakefield was a professional, trained dietitian and a noted regional food lecturer. In 1930, she and her husband brought her skills to a popular tourist lodge, known as the Toll House Inn, that they purchased in Whitman, Massachusetts.

Located halfway between Boston and New Bedford, the Inn was a historical destination where for centuries travelers traditionally stopped and paid a road toll, changed their horses and ate home-cooked meals.

When the Wakefields opened their business, they named their restaurant The Toll House Inn after the nearby historical toll road. Wakefield was in charge of food service. Based on her culinary expertise, the Inn soon gained a reputation for outstanding seafood dishes and memorable desserts. Her guests often included Harvard’s top professors and members of the Kennedy family.

Guests often chose to finish their meals with a thin butterscotch nut cookie served with ice cream. But like any chef, Wakefield longed to create something new. So in 1938, she deliberately created a new dessert cookie, complete with chunks from a chopped up Nestle semi-sweet chocolate bar that her culinary training told her should not melt completely once they were baked in the cookie dough.

One taste and she knew she had a winner. Wishing to link her creation to her restaurant, she named what would become the world’s favorite cookie, the Toll House Cookie.

Initially, however, the cookie was only a regional secret. But when World War II engulfed the United States in 1941, soldiers and sailors from Massachusetts posted abroad asked their loved ones stateside to send them care packages containing Toll House cookies. They, of course, had to share the content of their cookie tin with their comrades-in-arms and the cookie’s fame spread among the troops.

When the soldiers and sailors returned home after the end of the War, the demand for Toll House Chocolate Cookies increased. As a result, Nestlé saw the national sales of their semi-sweet chocolate bars soar. Ever the sharp business woman, Wakefield made a true culinary arrangement with Andrew Nestlé: she gave the company the right to print her cookie recipe on their bag of chocolate chips for one dollar in exchange for continuing to calling the cookie after her Inn (resulting in endless national promotion of her restaurant) as well as a lifetime supply of Nestlé chocolate for her kitchen. Although there are many manufacturers of chocolate chips today, Nestlé still publishes the recipe on the back of each package of Toll House Morsels.

When Wakefield died in 1977, the New York Times chose not to publish an obituary celebrating this remarkable member of the culinary industry. But perhaps she didn’t need an obituary when you consider that she single-handedly created one of the world’s most beloved recipes.

But what’s a great cookie without a cup of smooth, rich coffee? For that we have to thank Melitta Bentz.

Like Wakefield, Melitta Bentz has largely been overlooked by history. But without her insight and courage, we would all be drinking a much rougher cup of coffee.

Born in 1873 in Germany into a family of entrepreneurs, she married another entrepreneur, Hugo Bentz, and settled down to the predicable life of German hausfrau and beloved wife. There was only one problem: her morning cup of coffee was terrible.

Her concern was prompted by the fact that by the early 1900s the price of coffee beans had dropped dramatically. However, actually brewing the coffee was still a problem. A smooth, grounds-free cup of coffee required an expensive machine that few families could afford. Home brewed coffee was often full of loose grounds, an over-brewed liquid and mess to clean up afterwards.

Bentz set out to solve this persistent coffee problem. She experimented with many techniques, but finally solved the problem when she made holes in a small coffee saucer and lined it with blotting paper from her young son’s school notebook. The result was a filtered and much more flavorful cup of coffee.

She quickly realized she had solved an age old problem: how to make a consistently great cup of coffee without floating grounds in the cup. She quickly patented her new filter in 1908. By 1909 she and her husband, who left his job and joined her new company, sold 1,200 coffee filters at the Leipzig Household Wares Fair. The following year her innovative product won a gold medal at the International Health Exhibition and a silver medal at the Saxon Innkeepers’ Association.

World Wars I and II interrupted the growth of her company, but Bentz persisted nevertheless in improving both the product and the lives of her loyal employees who lived and worked through paper shortages, the military conscription of her husband, devastating bombings and forced relocations. Despite these difficulties she continued to offer fair wages, a generous leave policy and a humane five-day work week. She also fostered a company-wide aid system to assist employees in need that still exists today.

Bentz died beloved in 1950 at the advanced age of 77, leaving behind her a culinary legacy of strength and courage. Her company is still family owned and currently employs over 3,300 individuals worldwide. But perhaps her most lasting contribution is the steaming cup of smooth coffee that people around the world enjoy at the start of every day.

Wakefield and Bentz are just two of the many women that have enriched not only the culinary world, but the lives of us all each day through their creativity, courage and insight through something as simple and enduring as a chocolate-flavored cookie and a savory cup of coffee. We’ll have one of each, please.

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