WHITMAN — It’s not often that a children’s book author draws a large adult audience for a story time reading, but Kathleen Teahan’s new book “The Cookie Loved ’Round the World” is not your average children’s book.
The story of the chocolate chip cookie’s beginnings in Whitman also brought out local history buffs, former Toll House Restaurant waitresses and past customers of the restaurant that burned down in 1984. Children attending sat at Teahan’s feet, munching Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, from packages handed out by library staff as she and her illustrator Larisa Hart spoke at the Monday, Aug. 21 event in the Whitman Public Library’s Community Room.
After her talk they waited in a long line to purchase copies of the book to be signed by Teahan, a former English teacher and state legislator, and Hart, who is a former Whitman-Hanson Express graphic designer.
“Who remembers when the Toll House was standing in Whitman?” asked Youth Services Librarian Stephanie Young as some of the older audience members raised their hands.
“I didn’t grow up around here, but actually, it burned down before I was born,” she said to some laughter as she introduced Teahan.
“It’s very exciting to be back in Whitman,” Teahan said, recalling when the library was located in Town Hall. “Before I talk about the book, I’d like to talk about the cookie — how many people in this room like chocolate chip cookies?”
Almost every hand in the room shot up at the question.
“Looks like just about everybody,” she said. Teahan also provided some chocolate chip cookies factoids:
• The largest ever baked was a 40,000-pound biscuit made in 2013 in North Carolina as a fundraiser for a folk art museum;
• Americans eat 7 billion chocolate chip cookies every year — the number one variety;
• The chocolate chip cookies was first baked in Whitman in the 1930s.
“Whitman is a very special town and a town we should all be proud of because of that,” she said. “It also has a lot of other things we should be proud of.”
Her book is a “fictionalized history” narrated by Teahan’s real-life Aunt Ann, who grew up in Whitman and worked at the Toll House. Teahan’s research took her to historical societies, universities, libraries and personal information with which she was familiar.
Hart followed with a brief talk on the illustration process.
“We just met a couple years ago,” Teahan said. “It was the luckiest thing that could have happened.”
Hart compared their partnership to meeting a new kid in school who became your best friend.
“When you make a book it’s not just you working on the book,” Hart said with a laugh. “You have other people who work for the book company, so every illustration had seven versions of it.”
She told the children that, while they may color some pictures quickly, bigger and more detailed pictures could take more time.
“That’s what I learned while doing this book,” Hart said. “You can work on something and work on it for a long time, but if you believe in yourself … your perseverance will pay off.”
As she read the book aloud, Teahan interjected background information on the story and how she came to write it. For example, as children, Aunt Ann and her brother would sell daily newspapers and their grandmother’s homemade doughnuts to help the family pay bills after their father lost his Fall River shipyard job during the Great Depression.
“No matter what was happening, they didn’t give up,” Teahan said of the family’s resilience. “I bet you guys don’t give up when things are tough — you just keep trying and practicing and eventually you get it.”
The book also relates one version of the story behind Ruth Wakefield’s invention of the Toll House chocolate chip cookie. There are evidently at least three versions, Teahan said.
A batch of cookies ordered for a wedding reception was jeopardized by a shortage of walnuts, as the food supply was often undependable during the Depression. Wakefield substituted small pieces of Nestlé bittersweet chocolate, which she had on hand — but the morsels did not melt in baking.
“Everybody in the kitchen gave two thumbs-up to the cookie,” Teahan said adding that Wakefield’s request to Nestlé for chocolate that was easier to chop up led first to scored bars and eventually to today’s bag of semi-sweet morsels.
“The Toll House is on the front of the bag so everybody who buys this gets to see something about Whitman,” she said as she held up a package of morsels. “They also get the recipe. So Mrs. Wakefield put Whitman on the map.”
Even noted war correspondent Ernie Pyle was a fan, writing in 1938 that “Ruth Wakefield can cook ‘by ear.’ Or by taste, I suppose you’d call it. She can taste a strange dish, and come home and recreate it with every ingredient in proportion.”
Pyle’s columns, and Nestlé advertisements, advocating the inclusion of the Toll House cookie in packages to WWII troops overseas helped spread the cookie’s fame.
The book concludes with the project by a 1996 project by third-graders at a Somerset school, which won Official State Cookie designation by the state Legislature.