The Margaret Chase Smith Recipes Research Collaborative is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, students, and staff at the University of Maine. Members represent a wide range of disciplines including history, sociology, folklore, anthropology, public policy, food science, and business. Senator Smith was a trailblazer, passionate about bringing people together through civil discourse, often over a home-cooked meal. She was a proud homemaker throughout her thirty-three years in office, and she maintained an extensive recipe collection, using recipes from her collection to entertain fellow policymakers in Washington and at home in Maine. The collaborative formed to support students and faculty interested in issues of food, recipes, politics, history, and their intersections.
This post is part of a series of student research projects exploring a recipe from Smith’s collection from an Honors tutorial taught by Dr. Rachel A. Snell in Spring 2019. Combined the students’ insights provide a new window into Sen. Smith’s private and public persona as well as the cultural, social, and scientific context of her lifetime.
“Chocolate Crunch Cookies” is the last recipe in the “Cookies” section of Margaret Chase Smith’s personal recipe box. Though entirely handwritten, it is absent from any sign of a contributor’s name or the date added. On the back of the recipe card is the first half of another handwritten recipe, this one for hermits—scratched-out, upside-down, but still legible. The contributor has added several personal comments after the customary instructions: “very good and something different,” she writes, and laments over the rising costs of semi-sweet chocolate—farmore preferable, she confides, to the cheaper but less satisfactory “sweet chocolate.”
After a first glance, this recipe clearly relies on staple ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, shortening, baking soda, vanilla. The most expensive ingredients are the nuts and the chocolate (and these, of course, are entirely up to the individual baker’s discretion). Easy-to-find ingredients, yes, but not universally affordable. Upon initial analysis of this recipe, its apparent similarity to a chocolate chip cookie was immediately noticeable, and the original Toll House cookie recipe seemed to be a rational jumping-off point for research. “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies,” as they originally appeared in the 1938 edition of Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes, are, in fact, almost identical to the “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” in Smith’scollection. Theonly differences between the two recipes lie in the type of fat, the amount of chocolate, and theoven temperature. While the Smith recipe providesfar more detailed descriptions for how tocombine the ingredients, the similarities in the type and quantity of ingredients speak volumes.
The similarities between the two recipes suggests “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” made its way into Smith’s collection somewhere between 1938—when the pivotal edition of Ruth Wakefield’s cookbook was published—and 1940—when Nestlé began producing “chocolate morsels.” On March 20, 1939, Ruth Wakefield sold her aforementioned recipe to Nestlé for $1 and, reportedly, a lifetime supply of chocolate, immediately making “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” available to a much wider audience. Nestlé introduced “chocolate morsels” in 1940 for greater ease of making the cookies, though the contributor of the Smith recipe still specifies chopping a chocolate bar into pea-sized pieces—an indication that the “morsels” were, perhaps, a luxury item, too expensive, impractical, or even not yet invented at the date of contribution.
Expense, in particular, is a notable focus in the analysis of this recipe due to several factors that suggest the possibility of the contributor’s low socioeconomic status. She substitutes the butter in the original Toll House recipe for shortening, a less expensive and more shelf-stable fat; the scribbled-out recipe for hermits on the back of the cookie recipe suggests that she recycled recipe cards to avoid waste; much of her commentary surrounds the price of chocolate and her disappointment at not being able to afford to make this particular recipe anymore; and she cites substituting a cheaper chocolate, sweet rather than semi-sweet, in an endeavor to prepare the cookies nonetheless before dismissing that “it isn’t quite the same.”
Having grown up in a working-class family herself, living in Skowhegan and working her own job by the age of 12, Margaret Chase Smith probably cut a less intimidating figure to the women with whom she associated—indeed, itis even likely that women of lower economic status would have felt more comfortable sharing their recipes with her, even on previously used cards. The question still stands: who may have contributed this recipe to Smith’s collection? Assuming, for now, that the 1938-1940 hypothesis is correct for the submission of the recipe; it would make the most sense that Sen.Smith received this recipe from someone in the Congressional Club, the only women’s club in which she was active during those years. The scratched-out hermit recipe challenges this interpretation. Hermits are a uniquely regional food, containing northeastern/Canadian traditional elements such as raisins, molasses, and brown sugar. Would the same politically connected wife have submitted two such commonplace, simple recipes, on reused recipe cards, nonetheless?
The other most likely possibility as to the recipe’s contributor is a member of either Maine’s Sorosis Club or Business and Professional Women’s Club (PBW), the two women’s organizations in which MCS was notably active throughout her life. Such an origin would explain the hints of regional tradition, the congenial tone observed in the commentary, the indications of a lower-class contributor, and—perhaps mostnotably—the shareable nature of both recipes. The BPW, in particular, had a “downtown clubhouse” that members who worked in the city would use as an area to eat lunch—a prime excuse to have quick, easily distributed treats on hand.
It’s not surprising that this recipe retained its spot in MCS’ recipe box; as her personal secretary Angie Stockwell recalled, the senator “always liked to have some sort of crunch cookie on hand.” Her former housekeeper remembered how, on her weekly shopping trips, she was always instructed to buy Pepperidge Farm cookies, which, apparently, “disappeared somewhere!” Did she ever make these cookies? We may never know—but if she tried them even once, I’d bet that they remained a favorite.
Caitlin Hillery is a third-year Food Science and Human Nutrition major with a concentration in Food Science and member of the Honors College at the University of Maine.
Carolyn Wyman, The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie(New York: Countryman Press, 2013).
Wyman,The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book; Jon Michaud, “Sweet Morsels: A History of the Chocolate-Chip Cookie.”The New Yorker, 19 June 2017.
Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
Jeannette W. Cockroft, “The Transformative Power of Work: The Early Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith,” Maine History47:2 (July 2013); Diane Tye, Baking as Biography: a Life Story in Recipes(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).
Email correspondence with Angie Stockwell, Archivist, Margaret Chase Smith Museum and Library.