WHITMAN — Some towns find their identity in being the birthplace of a president or a university, but this unassuming town is home to a culinary revolution: the chocolate chip cookie.
And this year, as the Toll House cookie recipe hits its 75th anniversary, people here are going, to put it bluntly, a little nuts.
Saturday will be Toll House Cookie Day at the Whitman Public Library, and town officials, schoolchildren, an author of a book on the chocolate chip cookie, and others are getting in the swing of honoring the cookie and Whitman’s moment.
As part of the fun, students in Robert Mello’s metal fabrication class at South Shore Regional Vocational Technical School in Hanover are molding metal to create a 6-foot cookie for the town’s first celebration of First Night at the end of December. When the countdown into 2014 begins, the metal cookie will be lowered for all to see in Whitman Center.
“We take our cookies seriously here in Whitman,” said Andrea Rounds, director of the Whitman library.
It was tough-minded restaurateur Ruth Wakefield who started the revolution in American baking when she created the first chocolate chip cookie by cutting up a Nestlé’s semi-sweet candy bar and adding the bits to her butterscotch cookie recipe at Toll House Restaurant in 1938.
“Whitman was put on the map because of the Toll House cookie,” said Richard Rosen, a third-generation Whitmanite. “There were a lot of very important people who used to come here for the Toll House Restaurant.”
Rosen, who is part of the committee planning the First Night celebration, said Nestlé is helping to fund the event and may send a film crew to the event that will feature performances by three bands and, of course, the big cookie drop.
“I think this is going to be a huge event for Whitman and the area,” he said, adding that the town’s annual Winterfest celebration will still be held on Sunday, Dec. 1.
At the library, Rounds said Saturday will feature a bake-off for all amateur cookie bakers and a panel discussion with former Toll House Restaurant waitresses Carol Cavanagh and June O’Leary, and Marguerite Gaquin, whose mother, Sue Brides, was the baker who worked closely with Wakefield.
Also on hand will be Carolyn Wyman, author of the recently released “The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book,” who did some of her research at the library.
“We are anticipating a full house,” said Rounds, adding that the main room at the library can hold 96 and may run two shifts to accommodate the crowd. The event will get underway at 2 p.m.; the cookie judging is set for 3 p.m.
Both Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, who was co-owner of the restaurant — are deceased, and the Toll House Restaurant burned down on New Year’s Eve 1984. At the time of the fire, the rambling restaurant was owned by Frank and Carol Saccone.
A Wendy’s restaurant was later built at the location. A plaque located between the Wendy’s and a Walgreen’s on Route 18 marks the site of the iconic eatery that managed to thrive during the Great Depression, when there were few successful restaurants.
Wyman, a former syndicated food columnist who has also written books about other American foods, including Spam and Jell-O, said the cookie has always hit a sweet spot with her.
“It’s my favorite food,” said Wyman, a native of Cumberland, R.I. “I’ve eaten more chocolate chip cookies than any other food.”
“The chocolate chip cookie is America’s favorite cookie by far,” she said, adding that it is hard to imagine a world without it and the myriad of spinoff products that are always growing in number: chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, premium ice cream sandwich treats, and anything else with chocolate chips in it.
Nestlé’ started making its chocolate chips or morsels about nine years after Wakefield’s Toll House cookie recipe first appeared in her own cookbook in 1939. When the cookie was featured in national women’s magazines in the late 1940s and Nestlé saw a 500 percent rise in the sales of its candy bars, it created the morsel, Wyman said.
Wakefield’s recipe, which calls for nuts, is still printed on the back of Nestlé’s iconic morsel packages.
Wyman interviewed all of Saturday’s panelists for her book and said they remember Wakefield as a tough boss who knew you had to do new things to keep people interested in your restaurant.
Although there are many cookie recipes today that list candy as an ingredient, it was revolutionary at the time, Wyman said.
“People melted chocolate and put it in desserts. No one had thought to put pieces of chocolate into a dessert,” she said.
Wyman said she had fun researching the local lore, although some of it crumbled under closer inspection. Among her findings:
■ The “1709” written on the chimney of the Toll House Restaurant was probably a marketing ploy, since the original building was constructed as a home in 1817.
■ Although it was located on the main toll road between Boston and Cape Cod, the building was never a toll collection house.
■ It was said that the cookie was created accidentally, when Wakefield ran out of nuts one night and grabbed a candy bar and an ice pick. Wakefield, a graduate of the Framingham Normal School cooking program, was an experienced baker and ran a tightly organized restaurant that included a seven-page, single-spaced manual for waitresses. “It didn’t seem like anything was an accident at that restaurant,” Wyman said.
■ Although Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. did frequent the restaurant, his favorite dessert was the Boston cream pie; and it is likely that it was the restaurant’s brownies, not the cookies, that he sent to John F. Kennedy while the future president was in the Navy during World War II.
■ The restaurant gave the cookies away as a freebie with its ice cream, and it was its pecan rolls and Indian pudding that were far more popular.
■ Wakefield usually ordered Baker’s brand chocolate made in Dorchester’s Lower Mills; she happened to create the recipe with Nestlé’s chocolate bars because her distributor was out of Baker’s.
Wyman’s book has a guidebook section highlighting the best chocolate chip cookie by area according to locals. A section on recipes will give you tips on how to get your cookies to turn out the way you want them, be it crispy or cakey.
Wyman has one piece of advice: Make very large cookies so that you can get both cakey and crispy in one cookie, and that way you can say you only ate one.Elaine Cushman Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.