John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

Sweet on a bit of D.C. history: In search of the famed YWCA chocolate chip cookies

Underwood & Underwood - The YWCA at 17th and K streets NW in Washington, D.C. in 1920.

Before being torn down, the YWCA on K Street NW sold chocolate chip cookies. They were awesome and in the 1960s sold for 50 cents each. Does anyone know where the original recipe can be found?

— Joan Bliss,

(Tom Kelley/The Washington Post) - Volunteers load up a batch of their famous chocolate chip cookies at the YWCA at 17th and K streets NW in 1972.

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The original recipe for the YWCA’s famed chocolate chip cookies can be found down a long tunnel hewn from the living rock. It rests on a stone pedestal connected to a pressure-sensitive mechanism that, when activated, starts a massive boulder rolling toward the mortal who dared desecrate the temple.

Or is Answer Man remembering a scene from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”? It’s easy to confuse the two — Golden Idol, YWCA cookie recipe — because both are objects of fevered desire.

In 1905, a branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association opened in Washington, funded by gifts from Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lothrop, of department store fame, and heiress Helen Gould. In 1926, the organization built a headquarters at 17th and K streets NW, complete with rental rooms, a gymnasium, a pool and a cafeteria.

It’s unclear exactly when YWCA cooks started baking chocolate chip cookies, undoubtedly sometime after 1930, when the cookie was born at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass. A 1972 article in The Washington Post said they had been made for 10 years, which would date their introduction to 1962. A 1976 article said the cookies had been sold at the YWCA “for 30 years,” which would date their introduction to around 1946.

A later story credited the invention to Lula Woods, who started at the YWCA in 1942 as a “dessert girl,” serving World War II servicemen. “One day I saw some chocolate chips around and put some on the sugar cookies,” she told The Post. “Seemed pretty good. Then I used brown sugar and chocolate chips in a Toll House cookie recipe. And that’s how the Y chocolate chip cookie got its start.”

Whatever the date, by the late 1960s, lines were forming on the street every day as sweet-toothed Washingtonians jostled for the delicious cookies. When the cookies ran out, people would buy bags of cookie crumbs. When the crumbs ran out, things could get ugly.

It might be hard for modern Washingtonians to understand the hoopla. After all, today chocolate chip cookies are available just about everywhere: shopping malls, grocery stores, vending machines, next to the cash registers at gas stations.  But in the 1960s, they were a rarity.

Even as the chocolate chip universe expanded, the YWCA’s cookies stood out. For starters, they were large: “huge, as cookies go,” wrote The Post, which continued: “They’re loaded down with chocolate sprigs, Southern pecans, and real butter and eggs, brown sugar and a few secret ingredients.”

Most critically, they were crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Mmmm.

In 1972, food service at the YWCA was outsourced to a firm run by Dorothy Tousignant. She declined repeated entreaties to share the cookie recipe. Asking for it, she told The Post, is like “asking Lipton’s or Campbell’s for their soup recipes. There are certain trade secrets you don’t give away.”

In 1981, the YWCA left its K Street location and moved to a new building at Ninth and G streets NW. Cookies, baked off-site, were sold for a while, though it appears that stopped in 1983. Over time, former YWCA executive director Orysia Stanchak told Answer Man, the recipe was lost.

In 2005, a bake-off was held to create a new recipe in honor of the D.C. YWCA’s centennial. Patricia Walls of Oxon Hill won the contest, and cookies made to her specifications were sold during the holidays to raise money for the organization. Though they were surely delicious, some of the ingredients — graham cracker crumbs, bits of white chocolate — were unlikely to have been in the original cookies.

But was the original recipe truly lost? The YWCA moved last year to 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. During the move, said Shana Hilbron, director of development, a safe was found in the old chief financial officer’s office. “In the safe, we found a folder with a number of deeds and important papers,” Shana said.

Lodged inside the folder was an index card headed “YWCA Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe.” Handwritten instructions detailed how to make a batch of 140 to 160 cookies.

“It absolutely has pecans,” Shana said. “It is not the graham cracker 2005 one.”

Shana politely declined to share the recipe, but she said the YWCA, spurred by Answer Man’s enquiries, is contemplating resuscitating the famous cookie, perhaps for its 110th anniversary in 2015.

So, those hoping to taste that historic cookie are out of luck. And yet there is one more avenue to explore: According to a contemporary account, when the YWCA left its original building in 1981, a man sent his secretary to buy 10 dozen cookies so he could freeze them. Could one of those cookies still be around, cryogenically preserved at the back of a Kelvinator? If so, it should be possible to take that cookie and — like a dinosaur cloned from the blood in a prehistoric mosquito’s gullet — reverse-engineer it.

Have a question about Washington? Write answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

 
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