Origin of the Word Cookie and some Notes on the British and American Biscuit versus Cracker Conundrum
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Posted on 14 Dec 2012 15:07

In my post about the origin of the baker's dozen, I recounted a Dutch folktale from New Amsterdam that tells the story of how Saint Nicholas began the tradition of baker's giving thirteen for a dozen, which we call the baker's dozen. Of course, I also tell the true history of this practice, but the Santa Claus story is much more entertaining, concerning a baker who is taught a lesson about charity (or good will) by Saint Nicholas, who either conjures an old lady to torment the baker, or disguises himself as one. I'm not sure which.

A baker in New Amsterdam, Little Boomptie, has a banner business on New Year's cookies on New Year's eve. An old lady comes in and asked for a dozen of these New Year's cookies, and when the baker complies, she demands on more, insisting that a dozen is thirteen. He refuses her the extra cookie, and is bewitched and tormented for three full years before he finally cooperates, thus beginning the tradition of all the New Amsterdam bakers counting thirteen on the dozen.

New Amsterdam (Nieuw Amsterdam) was a Dutch colonial settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Established in 1625, it originated as a fur-trading settlement. There, traditional treats called koekjes were baked on all sorts of occasions. The word for cake, in Dutch, was koek. When the suffix -je was added, it designated "little cakes."

Origin of the word cookie
Origin of the word cookie

These little cakes kept their name for quite some time, but things started changing in 1674, when the English got control of the colony and started Anglicizing everything. What happened to New Amsterdam? It's New York! The first thing the English did was to change the name of the colony, in honor of the Duke of York, who is the guy who got it in his head to go to war against the Dutch in the first place.

Nevertheless, koekjes kept their name for a couple of decades. It took that long for most of the Dutch people in the colony to be regularly speaking English, which led to the word koekjes to naturally evolve into a more English sounding word. According to written evidence (we only have written mentions to surmise when a word "officially" enters a language) an early iteration in English was cockies which then led to the word cookies. And that is how we got our English word for "little cakes," which is really what a cookie is. Like many English words, it is of basically Germanic origin. But in this instance it came right to America rather than entering the language earlier, via Britain. The Duch sound for the long oo is written as oe, so the word koekje sounds pretty similar to the English word cookie. It sounds a bit like KOOOK-YES to my ear.

So, no, the word cookie has nothing to do with the word cook. The origin of the word cook is completely different, being of Latin origin. You can read more about words related to cook in this blog. This history lesson also helps to answer another riddle. People often wonder why the English called a cookie a biscuit (or a sweet biscuit) and why we, in America call the same sort of thing a cookie. Now you know. New York became such an important city that the word cookie, that we got from the Dutch, became the standard word for all such baked goods. Prior to this, cookie would have been called biscuits, just like they still are today in England.

Tray of Dutch Koekjes (cookies), Netherlands

Tray of Koekjes, Netherlands

Tray of Dutch Koekjes (cookies), Netherlands

Tray of Koekjes, Netherlands

Biscuits, Cookies, and Crackers

The English word biscuit came from the Old French bescuit, which literally meant "twice cooked." The bis part meant "twice" and the -cuit part was derived from the Latin coctus, meaning "cooked." Coctus was the past participle of the verb couqere meaning "to cook." The Italian word biscotti is also related. Biscuit, originally, would have referred to any type of hard, flat, and crisp bread, whether sweet or not.

At some point, Americans not only were referring to sweet biscuits as cookies, but began calling unsweetened biscuits, anything hard, flat, and crisp, crackers. This seems confusing when people try to relate the word for say, a saltine, with the word referring to "mean white folks" usually of Scots-Irish descent, who settled on the frontiers of the Virginias, Carolinas, Maryland, and Georgia. It's also associated with "cracking the whip" and to "cracking corn." However, the word originally came from Elizabethan England, and was used to describe a braggart or boaster. The word "crack" in Middle English referred to entertaining or fun conversation, and today we still crack jokes. However, the word for the food, whether related to this or not, did not originate in America.

Americans developed very specific classifying labels for two different sorts of biscuits. Thin, hard, flat, and crispy biscuits became crackers, while the more luxurious and sweetened biscuits became cookies. In England, the word was an over-riding term used to describe all such products. But this does not mean that there were not more specific names for specific products, for instance, the "cream cracker," which contained no cream, and was an Irish invention. The soda cracker, an American product, predates the cream cracker, and, as we shall see, the word cracker, in the United States, predates the word biscuit as well.

The word biscuit got to England via the French, who had, as mentioned above, gotten it from the Romans. When the word came into the French language it is hard to say. However, the word did not really come to America, via England, until around the middle of the 19th century. Before this time, the word biscuit had never been applied to these products, in the states. On the other hand, some American bakers had begun to produce products called crackers in the later 18th century. They were hard, flat, plain, unsweetened but crisps products which became very popular and in demand. Great demand for these crackers even occurred overseas, but the cracker designation was promptly dropped and they were absorbed into the generic "biscuit" classification. The name of cracker lived on the in United States, however.

Hard Tack or "Ship's Bread"

One of the first, if not the first, cracker manufacturing businesses in the United States was the firm of Theodore Pearson in Newburyport, Massachusetts, beginning in 1792. Pearson's crackers were large, round, crisp and not exactly refined crackers which were known as "pilot" or as "ship" bread, as well as "hard tack." These were popular with merchant marines who welcomed any type of food that would keep for a long period aboard a ship, and ordinary bread perished quickly.

An early competitor of Pearson was Joshua Bent, who had a craker baking operation in Milton, Massachussetts in 1801. It only operated three days a week, being worked by bent and some of his family, and then the cracker were sold by wagon the rest of the wee, and delivered to various points throughout the country. This was the start of the famous Bent's water-cracker, which has an international reputation, and is still made with the same recipe today, by an unleavened dough of flour, water, and salt. These products were sold in general stores out of open barrels, which is were the term cracker barrel came from, even though we never sell crackers out of barrels today.

After this early period, and throughout the 1800's, scores of cracker baking companies sprang up, mostly on the East Coast. The advent of machine for automating the dough flattening process set the cracker business on fire. Demand for crackers was also helped along by the gold rush of 1849, and other pioneering movements, where the cracker seemed ideally suited for a long haul across the country. At this time, besides distinctly local creations, there were five main types of "hard bread" or crackers being sold in mass, the pilot of ship's bread, the Bent's water cracker, the soft or butter cracker, and the soda cracker. The last three were actually from fermented dough and contained shortening, making them lighter and softer than the old ship's bread, and thus more popular.

It wasn't until after 1855 that the fancy sweetened English "biscuit" came to the states, from firms such as Huntley and Palmer, Peak, Frean and Company, and Belcher and Larrabee. English importers, however, found their products selling so well, and so widely, that they soon began to set up manufacturing locations within the United States and before long, English importation all but fizzled out. In fact, the trade even reversed direction, so that several American firms like Holmes and Coutts, the Wilsons, and F.A. Kennedy began to sell high-end unsweetened products to the European market. After a while, the smaller firms began consolidating into several large firms

The New York Biscuit Company was formed in 1890 in Chicago, from 23 firms, nearly all the cracker firms in New York and the New England states. It become the largest and most complete operation in the country. The America Biscuit and Manufacturing Company was formed that same year from a number of Midwestern firms. A fierce price war begain between these two companies, but in 1898 they united fro form the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), under the management of Adophus W. Green. Many plants were closed and many products were dropped, as Green planned to concentrate production on the soda cracker. The company settled on "Uneeda Biscuit" as name of its flagship product, and the "In-Er-Seal" waxed paper wrapper was developed to keep the crackers fresh.


Early Uneeda Biscuit Advertisment
"Out of the Cracker Barrel -
From Animal Crackers to ZuZus


Early Uneeda Biscuit Advertisment
"Out of the Cracker Barrel -
From Animal Crackers to ZuZus

By 1908 the company was also selling the Fig Newton, ZuZu Ginger Snaps, Graham Crackers, Premium soda Crackers or Saltines, Social Tea Biscuits (sweet), oyster crackers called Oysterettes, Animal Crackers, Arrowroot crackers, Zwieback, and sugar wafers called Nabiscos.

The little boy in the advertisement, wearing a raincoat, was the Gordon Stiles, the five year old nephew of an advertising writer. This image of the rain-slicker clad boy became universally familiar. Why the rain gear? It was to emphasize the fact that the crackers wouldn't be ruined by water, since they were sealed safely inside a "sanitary, waxed, air and moisture proof package." If images images of the Morton Salt Girl come to mind, you would be forgiven for thinking that one company copied the other. In this case it would have to be Morton who copied Nabisco, since the Morton ads came later. However, the Morton girl's being shown in the rain was not a random attempt to play off an earlier advertising icon; it was to emphasize the idea that Morton's salt was the only brand that would not become sticky in humid weather.

The Southern Soft Biscuit

Obviously, no discussion of the word biscuit can fail to mention the Southern biscuit, which really adds to the confusion, being a soft leavened bread instead of a hard cracker, highly perishable, and completely misnamed, at least by etiological standards, being definitely not twice baked.

Today's Southern biscuit probably originated with the Beaten biscuit, which is claimed to have come from either Maryland or Virginia (close enough). These were unleavened breads made simply with flour, lard, and milk. The dough was beaten, with a special axe, wooden mallet, or other implement for up to 30 minutes. Since there was available yeast, no baking soda, having not been invented yet, and certainly no baking powder, cooks were looking for a way to help bread rise. The only viable chemical choice was pearl ash, which is actually potassium carbonate. To get pearl ash, you had to pour water over wood ashes and then collect the solid that was left. It so happens that this process is also used to make lye. What happens when you add lye to animal fat? You get soap. So what happened when they used pearl ash to leaven bread that contain lard? They got a bitter, soapy taste. The solution was pounding the dough, folding it over, pounding it some more, and repeating, until tiny air pockets formed in the dough, basically like blisters. Then, when the dough was baked off, the air in these pockets heated and expanded, thus expanding the pockets, and thus the bread.

This, of course, did not result in a light fluffy product like we have today, but something between a cracker and a biscuit. Despite the shortening effect of the lard, the heavy working of the dough developed the gluten in the flour to such an extent that the product would be much more dense than today's product. You don't have to be an historian to imagine what happened next. Baking soda, and, eventually, baking powder, became available, replacing the beating process, and creating the light Southern biscuit, which has the same ingredients as the beaten biscuit, with the addition of baking powder (or baking soda and buttermilk). Since the dough did not have to be worked much a much lighter and softer product resulted.

The Word Cake

The word koek, and thus cookie, is closely related to the work cake which came from the Old Norse word kaka, in the thirteenth century. Although today we think of a cake as something made with very specific types of ingredients and techniques, the word originally had nothing to do with any specific recipe but referred to the shape: something round and flat on top, which may have been made from bread or other dough.

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