Vintage kitchen canisters.
Vintage kitchen canisters. downing.amanda/CC BY-SA 2.0

Magnus Nilsson is a Michelin star–winning chef who champions local food and whose success has elevated the status of Nordic cuisines worldwide. So when he wrote The Nordic Cookbook, he did his research. On an iconic Swedish radio show, he asked people to send him family recipes. “I got more meatball recipes than just about anything else,” Nilsson wrote of the experience. He learned that meatball styles are a good way to understand Nordic cuisine: Lingonberry jam vs. curry cream sauce preparations express regionality.

Nilsson also made another meatball discovery: He learned that people overestimated the uniqueness of their recipes. Of the several dozen meatball recipes he received, “some handwritten on index cards,” many were “exactly the same, even though the people who sent them described them as treasured family recipes.

Ever since I was pointed to Nilsson’s comments, I’ve wondered about a “secret recipe” in my family. Whenever I visited my grandfather, we made pizza. It was delicious, and my family joked about opening a pizza shop where my grandfather could sling pies.

I never learned the secret to my grandfather’s delicious dough, which now seems highly suspect. Did my Palestinian-American grandfather, whose other culinary traditions involved picking out donuts and pouring batter into a waffle iron, really spend days testing ingredients? Or am I to believe that he, always a soft-spoken man, once chatted up some Italians in a bar and received a cherished family recipe?

It’s more likely that my grandfather used a standard ingredient list. Our trust in his secret recipe seems to reflect the awesome power of belief and a general inability to suspect a grandparent of lying.

This seems to be a common phenomenon. One coworker told me that Nilsson’s meatball revelations remind him of learning that his grandma’s famous chocolate cake was from the side of a Hershey’s box circa 1940. A famous Phoebe moment from the television show Friends involves the realization that her grandmother’s famous chocolate chip cookie recipe came from a bag of Nestle Toll House chocolate chips.

I love these discoveries, so I’m asking for your help to gather more examples. Have you ever learned that a treasured family recipe came from a popular cookbook or the side of a cake mix box? Do you suspect any secret recipes in your family are not actually so secret, and can you investigate? Tell us about it, and we’ll share our favorite responses in an article this January. With your help, we can (lovingly) investigate whether our cherished family recipes are more common than we realize.

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