Baking Cookies: The Ruth Wakefield Antidote

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies…"

--Hillary Clinton, March 26, 1992

*

I haven't been this depressed since grad school, when reading Virginia Woolf everyday for months sent me into a tailspin. Don would arrive home from work, spot my yellow highlighter pen and copy of Mrs. Dalloway on the kitchen counter, and tiptoe out the back door.

"Why do you have to read that stuff?" he'd later ask. "It makes you so miserable." I'd explain it wasn't stuff, it was literature. No serious writer could not read and analyze Virginia Woolf. And besides, her work was / is brilliant. "But you're not a serious writer," he would say. "You're a funny writer. Just be funny."

Woolf, by the way, eventually put rocks in her pockets and sank to the bottom of the River Ouse. I, on the other hand, survived a course in Modernism and celebrated by going home to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. So much for literary angst.

Which brings me to yesterday. I'd spent the day researching and writing about the latest China factory fiasco. Last Friday, you may recall, three workers died, 15 were injured in an explosion in a Foxconn-owned (and newly built) factory in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

This is the factory where millions of iPads are polished to a sheen; the final step in production for electronics-hungry Westerners. The polishing, however, creates combustible aluminum dust particles that fill the air and settle on workers' skin despite protective gear. The explosion may have occurred in a dust-clogged duct. It may have happened on the factory floor. No one knows. This is China. Will we ever get the real story?

But it gets worse. Due to this explosion, the remaining 6.6 million iPads ordered by Apple, Inc. will now be made in Foxconn's older factories in Shenzhen. Yes, the same Shenzhen where conditions were (and perhaps still are; again, who knows?) so egregious that only a few months ago 14 workers attempted to commit suicide (11 succeeded), jumping out of high rise dormitory windows. Will factory owners ratchet up the workload and push workers harder than ever to complete those 6.6 million iPads? We'd be fools to think otherwise.

And you and me and consumers all over America will walk into white, bright Apple stores and miraculously find the products we so desperately want. Thinking about this, as I read and read and read the dreary China news online, I decided We are horrible, selfish, materialistic, maniacal people. Ugly Americans. Ugly rotten Americans. Can you see me, sinking into the depths of negativity? By the time Don arrived home, I'd turned activist:

Me: "It's a deplorable situation. How can we live with ourselves?"

Don: "Can you pass the asparagus?"

Me: "And it's not just Apple. Every electronic device we own is made in a Foxconn factory."

Don: "Are you gonna eat this last piece of salmon?"

Me: "Think about it: Amazon's Kindle, Cisco's networking gear, H-P's printers and computers, Dell's computers, Motorola's mobile devices, Microsoft's Xboxes, Sony's PlayStations. There's no escaping this mess."

Don: "Is this King salmon? It's great. Think I grilled it right this time. Sometimes I overcook it."

Me: "Why can't we make all these products here? You know what we need? A new industrial revolution. We could call it I.R. 2.0. How does that sound? Would people get what I meant?"

Don:

Me: "What?"

Don: "I didn't say anything."

Me: "Ok. But you look like you want to say something. Go ahead."

Don: "It's just that...aren't you going to write more stories about American companies that still manufacture products here? Those are so great."

Me: "But workers are dying in China. We can't ignore that, can we? It's like slave labor and we're supporting that. I don't even want to think about what to do if my laptop battery needs replacing. I'll feel too guilty to buy a new one."

Don: "Honey, please."

Me: "What?"

Don: "Nothing."

He went off to his den to work on patient charts. I shrugged my shoulders and got up from the table. And as I did this, my eyes landed on the eating nook's corner cabinet. A framed photo of my Dad sits on the white wood counter. "Hi, Dad. Miss you." How's my Sunshine Girl? "Well, since you asked…kinda cranky. And it’s all your fault. You're the one who got me started on this project." You're too goddamn sensitive. Ya gotta let it go. Gotta have a little fun. Got any dessert?

I set the oven to 350 degrees, grabbed my purse--the black leather tote made in Michigan by the Halsteads--and headed to the grocery store. I bought Guittard's {Made in the U.S.A. from imported cocoa beans} semi-sweet chocolate chips and a carton of {Made in the U.S.A.} Old Fashioned Quaker Oats. The clerk rang up my items and chuckled. "Looks like someone's making cookies, right? Have a good night." I smiled, waved goodbye. "Thanks."

I love America.

While oatmeal chocolate chip cookies baked in the oven (I always use chocolate chips instead of raisins, by the way), I conducted carefree, non-China research. According to women-inventors.com, the first chocolate chip cookies were concocted 1937 by Ruth Graves Wakefield of Massachusetts. Mrs. Wakefield, a dietician and food lecturer, ran the Toll House Inn with her husband, Kenneth. Wikipedia says the Toll House Inn "was a place where passengers historically paid a toll, changed horses, and ate much-welcomed home-cooked meals." The Wakefields continued this tradition. Ruth cooked all the food, but her desserts "soon gained local fame."

One day, while making her usual butter cookies, Ruth discovered she was out of the baking chocolate she'd planned to add. She instead substituted broken pieces of a Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate bar, thinking the chocolate would melt into the batter. It didn't. The first chocolate chip cookies were born.

News of Ruth Wakefield's delicious chocolate chip cookies spread. Newspapers published her recipe. So many folks were baking her cookies that sales of Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate bars spiked. Nestle approached Mrs. Wakefield with an offer. If she would allow the company to put her recipe on their semi-sweet chocolate bar wrappers, she could have free Nestle's chocolate for the rest of her life. Eventually Nestle created semi-sweet chocolate chips specifically for cooks to use in baking Ruth Wakefield's Toll House Cookies. Thanks, Ruth. You're ingenious.

Don emerged from his den, reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose. I was at the laptop computer, basking in Ruth Wakefield's glow. "Smells so good in here," he said, eyeing the rows of cooling cookies. "Can I have some?" He took a stack, smooched the top of my head, and went back to his den. I know. Right outta Happy Days.

Look, I can't change the world. I can't bring multinational corporations home or shut down factories in China. But I can--with apologies to Virigina Woolf and Hillary Clinton--bake oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Dad's right, and Don too. Sometimes ya gotta have a little fun.