What the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie Tells Us About the Evolution of Human Society

Legend has it that Ruth Wakefield, proprietress of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, ran out of nuts while mixing a batch of cookies sometime in 1937. In their place she is said to have used broken pieces of Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate, expecting the chocolate to melt and absorb into the dough to create chocolate cookies. Instead, when she removed the pan from the oven, the bits of chocolate remained embedded in the cookie and thus the chocolate chip cookie was born — or so the story goes.

Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate chip cookie

The reality is that Wakefield was an experienced baker who published her first cookbook six years before the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. (That cookbook was a bestseller that grew into an 888-recipe volume and was reprinted 28 times.) Those who worked with Wakefield say that she understood full well that the semi-sweet chocolate would not melt into the dough. Wakefield’s only account of the invention came in an interview she gave decades later: “We had been serving a thin butterscotch-nut cookie with ice cream. Everybody seemed to love it, but I was trying to give them something different. So I came up with the Toll House cookie.” Another reporter’s account from the same era stated that Wakefield “worked out the recipe on the way back from a trip to Egypt.”

Whatever the details of her moment of inspiration, it is clear that Wakefield and her husband Kenneth knew how to run a restaurant.

They started the Toll House Inn in 1930, just months after the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929. By their third day of operation, their original $50 in operating capital was down to $10. In spite of their inadequate startup capital and inauspicious timing, their business grew throughout the Great Depression. Located on the road from Boston to Cape Cod, the Toll House Inn benefited from two significant trends: the ascent of automotive transport and the democratization of the concept of vacation. By the time Wakefield experienced her famed moment of inspiration, the restaurant employed over one hundred people, served one thousand customers a day, had earned the Wakefields more than a half-million dollars, and was known throughout the region. In the 1940s and 1950s, patrons included composer Cole Porter, actresses Ethel Merman and Bette Davis, baseball player Joe DiMaggio, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Toll House Inn

Service was, of course, as much a part of the recipe for success at the Toll House Inn as the food. A post-World War II pamphlet captures both the owners’ aspirations and the spirit of a country fresh from military victory and consumed by industrial growth: “No military machine or factory production line was ever geared toward more smooth-running cohesion,” the pamphlet stated. “Long-range planning and constantly studied personnel are reflected in an operating framework flawless in its unruffled perfection.” The martial and industrial similitudes are given credence by the fact that every Toll House employee had to master a seven-page manual of standard service procedures at the restaurant.

The recipe that made the greatest difference in the success of the Toll House Inn arguably was not the one for chocolate chip cookies — which is still printed on every bag of Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate chips—but the administrative “recipe” the Wakefields employed in operating their restaurant.

Production recipes — code executed on an organizational scale — are much like culinary recipes on an entirely different scale of activity.

Production recipes are comprised of discrete tasks that, when performed in combination, yield clearly specified outputs. Each task can be refined and be the subject of experimentation; different arrangements of tasks (which is to say, different recipes) will result in different outputs.

Code can include instructions we follow consciously and purposively, and those we follow unconsciously and intuitively. Code can be understood tacitly, it can be written, or it can be embedded in hardware. Code can be stored, transmitted, received, and modified. Code captures the algorithmic nature of instructions as well as their evolutionary character.

The culinary recipe is not merely a metaphor for the how of production; the recipe is, rather, the most literal and direct example of code as I use the word in my recently-published book, The Code Economy.

Code is the DNA of economy. It is how ideas become things. The evolution of code is the story of the progress of human society from simplicity to complexity over the period of millennia.

There has been code in production since the first time a human being prepared food. Indeed, if we restrict “production” to mean the preparation of food for consumption, we can start by imagining every single meal consumed by the roughly 100 billion people who have lived since we human beings cooked our first meal about 400,000 years ago: approximately four quadrillion prepared meals have been consumed throughout human history. Each of those meals was in fact (not in theory) associated with some method by which the meal was produced — which is to say, the code for producing that meal.

Substantial anthropological research suggests that culinary recipes were the earliest and among the most transformative technologies employed by humans. We have understood for some time that cooking accelerated human evolution by substantially increasing the nutrients absorbed in the stomach and small intestine. However, recent research suggests that human ancestors were using recipes to prepare food to dramatic effect as early as two million years ago — even before we learned to control fire and began cooking, which occurred about 400,000 years ago. Simply slicing meats and pounding tubers (such as yams), as was done by our earliest ancestors, turns out to yield digestive advantages that are comparable to those realized by cooking. Cooked or raw, increased nutrient intake enabled us to evolve smaller teeth and chewing muscles and even a smaller gut than our ancestors or primate cousins. These evolutionary adaptations in turn supported the development of humans’ larger, energy-hungry brain.

The first recipes — code at work — literally made humans what we are today.

This post is an excerpt from my newly published book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History. For more from the book, see my recent piece on Nautilus, “Civilization is Built on Code”.