When Lula Woods began baking chocolate chip cookies at the old Young Women's Christian Association some 40 years ago, she never envisioned her product would spark a chewy and delicious tradition that would one day bring legions of cookie lovers to the door of the Y, pushing, shoving and crying for crumbs.
The cookie hysteria broke out two years ago when the YWCA left its historic red brick building at 17th and K streets. One boss sent his secretary to buy 10 dozen cookies at 45 cents each so he could freeze them. Other fans sent letters to President Reagan asking for a presidential proclamation to save the cookies. Still others cried as they bought bags of crumbs, having missed the last of the whole Y cookies.
For Woods, a native of Rocky Mount, N.C., the fuss came as a surprise. "I didn't think I was doing anything special--just doing my job," she says.
Woods began her career at the YWCA in 1942 as a "dessert girl," serving World War II servicemen. Among her customers was General--later President--Dwight D. Eisenhower. "He seemed like a nice man," recalled the 71-year-old resident of Southeast Washington.
When the Y's baker died in 1945, Woods took over his work. She rose each morning at 5 a.m., riding the District's streetcars to work where she began her day by warming the cafeteria's ovens. Initially, she baked cakes and breads and later added cookies.
Woods' eyes and voice brighten when she talks about the evolution of the YWCA cookie. "One day I saw some chocolate chips around and put some on the sugar cookies. 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," she said.
The Y cookies, as they were called, were special. Handmade and baked daily, the giant-sized cookies were lightly browned and crisp on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside. Chocolate chip fans stood in snake lines outside the Y bake shop demanding either the nutless or pecan-filled varieties.
After 14 years of baking more chocolate chip cookies than she would care to recall, Woods left the Y in 1959. "I just got tired. There comes a time when you have to move on to something else," she said.
For a short time, Woods worked in a bakery, did day work as a maid, then became a full-time homemaker, caring for her husband, Herbert, a retired Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company employe.
Woods left behind hundreds of chocolate chip cookie fans and her recipe, which the Y still keeps top secret. Trying to gain even the slightest clue from Y officials about what gives the cookies their special character is like trying to pry open a clam.
"Zillions of people have tried to copy the recipe. But it is a tricky little cookie. There's a lot of chemistry that goes into developing the taste, texture and color," said Dorothy Tousignant, whose firm operated the food service at the former Y.
For 22 years after Woods left, the cafeteria cooks continued to turn out the cookies. The recipe was revised over the years but the delectable treats never stopped selling until the YWCA closed its doors to make way for the wrecker's ball and a new office building. The YWCA is now housed in a building at Ninth and G streets.
Because of public demand, Y officials tried to arrange to keep baking and selling the cookies. They rented space in a church and the former Y cooks did the baking. Eventually, the Y selected a bakery to make the cookies, selling them from a vending stand at 17th and K streets. But all attempts to save the Y cookie were unsuccessful. The taste, quality and size of the cookies were never quite the same as people remembered them, said Valerie Ogden, YWCA executive director.
Plans are now under way to sell the cookies once more. Y officials have hired Tousignant's firm to bake them. "I thought the cookies were a fad--just like quiche--in and out. But people are still asking about them. I think we can capture the market," Tousignant said.
Tousignant plans to produce 60,000 chocolate chip cookies by September to sell to stores. Although no price has been set yet, the large cookies will be competitive with other Cadillac chocolate chippers, which cost as much as $1.17 each.
"We won't go public until they are perfect," Ogden said. "We have to uphold tradition."