It’s January. The weather is nasty, and is supposed to get nastier before it gets better (tomorrow the temp is a high of -12!!!!). Comfort foods are a necessity and my chosen breakfast has become oatmeal. I’ve been eating it every morning, and while looking for new recipes to make my daily oatmeal more savory, I discovered that January is National Oatmeal Month! My best guess for this designation is that everyone is trying to detox from the holidays. But instead of eating healthy, we’re going to discuss the history of oats as food, and then reward ourselves with oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the end. Let’s go!
It seems to me that oatmeal cookies, and oatmeal as food in general, are fairly divisive even today. Oatmeal raisin cookies in particular seem to be an issue for many. (I mean, can it really even be considered a cookie??) Present-day oatmeal cookies can be traced back to Scotland, where oatcakes, a less moist, crisper version of modern-day oatmeal cookies, have existed since the Middle Ages. Scotland seems to have been an early adopter of oats as a viable food option for humans. However, some other places were not as fast to catch on. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, written in the mid-1700’s, defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”
Many Americans before the mid-19th century agreed with the English. While oats were grown in the United States since the 1600s, they were mainly used to feed cattle. It wasn’t until Ferdinand Schumacher, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States in the 1850s, attempted to change people’s minds about oats. Shortly after settling in Akron, Ohio, he founded the German Mills American Cereal Company. Realizing that oats, which were commonly used for porridge in his home country, were relegated to horse feed in his newly adopted land, he came up with a plan. At this time, oat kernels were ground very coarsely and would have taken a great deal of time to cook. Schumacher developed the “rolled oat”–literally a kernel that had been rolled flat–reducing the cooking time significantly. The timing worked in Schumacher’s favor, as it was around this time that the Civil War began. Rolled oats were a relatively cheap and shelf-stable food, making it an ideal food for both soldiers and civilians during lean times.
After the War, in 1877, Henry Seymour and William Heston registered the trademark for rolled oats as the first breakfast cereal. These two founders of the Quaker Oat Company chose perhaps the most famous face now associated with oatmeal in the United States: The smirking, elderly, Quaker man. He is not based on any real person, but was created for their logo by the two founders as “a symbol of good quality and honest value.”
Even before the cereal was trademarked, people began figuring out how to use oats in sweet treats. Oats were often used in the South during the War to make a cheaper version of pecan pie. And the earliest record I could find for an oatmeal cookie was in several newspapers from the fall of 1883 (though this means that recipes certainly existed before this, in unpublished form). The same recipe was circulated from New England to the Midwest, calling for the oatmeal cookie to be made “just like an ordinary cooky, using two-thirds oatmeal and one third wheat flour.” By 1896, a recipe for oatmeal cookies appeared in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer’s recipe is much drier than the recipes we know today. Her recipe instructs you to mix the ingredients and then “Toss on a floured board, roll, and cut into shape,” in something that sounds more like a scone than a chewy cookie. Farmer’s recipe also did not include raisins, which did not become the norm for oatmeal cookies until Quaker Oats began printing a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies on every carton of their oats in the early 1900s, the result of a collaboration between Sun-Maid Raisins and the Quaker Oat Company, who employed the same advertising agency. The recipe gained popularity during the difficult times of World War I and the Great Depression, again, as a somewhat cheap staple pantry item.
If you are comfortable knowing your go-to breakfast choice and common cookie ingredient were once horse food, then I think you’ll be able to get on board with these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (The recipe I made calls for chocolate, not raisins, but they could easily be substituted if you’re a oatmeal raisin cookie purist.)
Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
For the recipe, I used a mash-up of the classic Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, and the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes 18-24 cookies.
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces, or a mix of both (approximately 3/4 cup total)
Flaky sea salt, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Beat until fully combined and smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.
Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until just combined so that no flour streaks remain.
Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix in oats and chocolate.
Use a tablespoon to create scoops and place at least two inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, optional.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pans 180 degrees halfway through baking.
Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before eating warm, or moving to a cooling rack to cool completely.
These cookies have come a long way since the oatcakes of Scotland. Simple and so good. I could’ve gone with the traditional raisins, which I actually really like and maybe even prefer, but I can’t be trapped inside my house by the cold with a bunch of oatmeal raisin cookies. Like, I can’t trust myself. Plus, my husband likes chocolate and is, generally, a cookie fiend. And he’s really into these. I think you will be too.
Happy baking and, please, stay warm, my friends!