The brownie as we know it is so ubiquitous that one might think it’s been around forever, like toast or scrambled eggs. The brownie’s inception, however, is a matter of historical record.

Turns out, Bertha Palmer, she of Palmer House fame, asked her chef, Joseph Sehl, to make something special for the boxed lunches to be served at the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. “She wanted something special,” says Ken Price, Palmer House Director of Public Relations/Historian. “She wanted something more than just a piece of cake or pie. She wanted something more like a cookie, but denser than a cookie.”

After its debut at the White City, the brownie was served at the Palmer House, and it’s still served to this day at Potter’s in the Palmer House. I found these Potter’s brownies to be very gooey and chocolaty. Price told me that there’s a lot of cocoa butter in these brownies, “so it’s a little like fudge.”

But brownies need not always be chocolate; Sugar Fixe, for instance, serves a caramel brownie, and butterscotch Blonde Brownies show up at Starbucks.

National Brownie Day is December 8. With the legalization of cannabis just around the corner, you may want to prepare a batch of Alice B. Toklas Brownies. Toklas was the life-mate of Gertrude Stein, one of the English language’s most difficult authors, avant-garde doyenne, and good buddy to Pablo Picasso as well as Oak Parker Ernest Hemingway during his Paris days.

Instead of celebrating National Brownie Day on December 8, hold off until after January 1 so you can follow Toklas’ recipe for her special brownies, which she describes as “the food of Paradise—of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.”

Here’s the recipe as it appears in “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.” When Toklas’ book was published in the United States by Harper’s in 1954, this recipe was mysteriously omitted. Somewhat surprisingly, Toklas’ recipe seems more a savory than sweet concoction, which is one of several ways in which it appeals:

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.”

Ironically, Alice B. Toklas brownies are not baked (get it?).

As of the first of the year, you’ll be able to purchase the called-for “canibus” at Seven Points (1132 Lake). As for the “stoned dates,” you’re on your own – haven’t had one of those since 1969.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...