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The Dirty Secret of ‘Secret Family Recipes’

Surprisingly often, they’re copied from mayo jars and famous cookbooks.

Maybe grandma's secret family recipe isn't so secret after all.
Maybe grandma's secret family recipe isn't so secret after all. Paul Boston

When Danny Meyer was gearing up to open his barbecue restaurant, Blue Smoke, there was one recipe he knew he had to have on the menu: his grandmother’s secret potato salad recipe.

“I told the chef, ‘My very favorite potato salad in the world was the one my grandmother made,’” Meyer recalls.

That’s a big statement coming from Meyer, a successful restaurateur who has earned Michelin Stars and founded the fast-casual chain Shake Shack. At the time, his grandmother had already passed away, but Meyer remembered that she kept recipes on three by five index cards. After a search, he found the right card and handed it to the restaurant’s chef, who invited Meyer to try it in the Blue Smoke kitchen.

When Meyer arrived, the sous chefs had a big bowl of potato salad that brought back memories of his grandmother. He tried it, smiled, and told the chefs, “That’s exactly right.” They grinned back at him mischievously. Eventually, Meyer broke and asked, “What’s so funny?” A chef pulled out a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise and placed it on the table. Meyer looked at it, then realized that the secret recipe his grandmother had hoarded for years was on the jar. It was the official Hellman’s recipe for potato salad.

This actually seems to be a common phenomenon. The television show Friends even features a similar discovery, when one character, Phoebe, realizes that her grandmother’s “famous” chocolate chip cookie recipe came from a bag of Nestle Toll House chocolate chips.

Two months ago, we asked Gastro Obscura readers to send in accounts of their own discoveries. We promised a (loving) investigation of grandparents lying about family recipes. But instead we got a delightful look at the power of imagination, the limitations of originality, and the halo effect of eating a dish or dessert made by family.

Nestles's Milk advertisement from 1955.
Nestles’s Milk advertisement from 1955. Iconographic Archive/ Alamy

Examples from Readers

In response to our call, 174 readers wrote in with stories of plagiarized family recipes. Hailing from New York to Nicaragua, from Auckland, New Zealand, to Baghpat, India, they prove that this is a global phenomenon. The majority of readers described devastating discoveries: They found supposedly secret recipes in the pages of famous cookbooks, and heard confessions from parents whose legendary dessert recipes came from the side of Karo Syrup bottles.

Fittingly, one of the most extraordinary examples also echoed the cookie plotline from Friends:

Once I was the judge of a chocolate chip cookie recipe contest. We stipulated that all cookies had to be homemade, no mixes or frozen dough. The top three cookies were chosen, photographed, and presented in a local newspaper along with the recipes for them. Calls and letters poured in pointing out that the first place cookie was the Nestle Toll House recipe and the second place recipe was the Toll House recipe doubled.

–Jeff Miller, Fort Collins, Colorado

Several readers joked about family members threatening to take a secret recipe to the grave. To our surprise, we also received a story of a late-in-life confession:

My uncle was known around town as the “fudge man.” Every year, he would make pounds of it for Christmas parties, bake sales, and gifts. It was legendary—people would beg him for the recipe. When he was ill in the hospital, before he passed, his wife begged him for the recipe so she could keep his memory going. He replied, “It’s on the side of the marshmallow fluff container.”

–Jess Heller, Minnesota

Not every story featured a deceptive elder, however. A number of readers found that they’d assumed a secret family recipe where there was only a well-loved cake mix:

My husband’s Russian grandmother made the world’s best Lemon Cake—according to my husband. Now, I consider myself a pretty good baker. I only use European butter, fresh ingredients, everything from scratch. It’s my hobby, my passion. When my husband and I first got together, he talked wistfully of his grandmother’s cake. She was 90+ and living on the other side of the country, so on my urging, he would ask her to send him the recipe. She never got around to it. Over the years, I tried dozens of recipes—using fresh Meyer Lemons that we grew ourselves! He would try them and say, “Well, it’s delicious, but not what I remember from my childhood.”

Finally, we happened to visit the East Coast in the final year of Grandma’s long life. We went to visit her at her home. Joe brought up the cake. She whacked her knee and exclaimed in her thick Jersey-and-cigarettes voice: “Oh Joey! That WAS a great cake! I got it off the box of Betty Crockah. Lemon Poke Cake. I’ll find it for you.”

–Suzy Scuderi, Olympia, Washington

You may be noticing a trend: Most of the stories concerned sweets. While we heard about stolen stuffings and copied casseroles, the vast majority of revelations centered around cookies, cakes, and, in one case, purple jello.

If you swear by your father’s chocolate cake or your grandmother’s famous cookies, you may want to check the recipes on Betty Crocker cake boxes and Hershey’s chocolate chip bags. To be safe, though, you have to investigate uncommon recipes too, as shown by this story about a mulled cider drink called wassail:

I grew up in California, and every Christmas Day for as long as I can remember, my grandmother and then my mother would make wassail in the slow cooker. It simply was not Christmas until the kitchen smelled like wassail, and the simple recipe (apple cider, pineapple juice, honey, sliced citrus, and spices) seemed to differ from any other wassail recipe. So the assumption was always that it had been created by someone far back in the family tree and handed down.

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I asked my mom for the recipe, and she dug out a printed recipe card and … It was a mass-produced recipe card from Macy’s department store. It turns out the wassail we enjoyed so much was a “freebie” recipe given away in the Macy’s kitchenware department during one holiday season back in the ‘70s to help sell Crock-Pots!

It was a bit of a let down to learn it wasn’t really some secret family recipe, but I have since introduced my in-laws to it, and they insist I make it every Christmas.

–Stephanie Baldwin, Montréal, Canada

While secret recipe stories tend to have punchlines, many are profound reminders of the link between food and memory:

I was on vacation in San Francisco, and we ended up eating at what could only be referred to as a Chinese spaghetti restaurant. It was inexpensive and very popular.

I ordered my meal, and they served soup as a starter. I took one bite, and it was my father’s vegetable beef soup. I almost got up and checked the kitchen, because he had passed away three months before.

Finally I called my mom, and she said that’s not your dad’s soup; it is Muriel Humphrey’s soup. Muriel was Hubert Humphrey’s wife, who was appointed to his Senate seat after he died. My dad was a lifelong Republican, but clearly he could reach across the fence when it came to an amazing vegetable beef soup recipe.

–Amy Jensen, Minnesota

Three Theories of Plagiarized Family Recipes

Reviewing reader accounts bolstered one explanation for why secret family recipes turn out to be not-so-secret: Cooks and bakers enjoy passing recipes off as their own. One Gastro Obscura reader recounted how her mother passes off a Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe as her own, and, when asked for it, tweaks the recipe so it won’t work as well. Another story involves a mother-in-law confidentially describing her taco sauce recipe: “Put pan on stove, pour Rosarita taco sauce into it, heat until warm, hide the bottle.”

But these stories also reveal that many family recipes are not a lie but a misunderstanding: Often, younger generations assume a recipe is a family secret despite a grandparent making no such claim:

Growing up, my mom would make pancakes with cottage cheese, milk, eggs, butter, and flour (plus a touch of salt and vanilla). She never looked at a recipe card, and for 20 years, my siblings and I had always assumed this was some secret family recipe learned in Lithuania. When I was long since grown and out of the house, I called to ask her for the recipe. With a nostalgic image in my head, I asked if she had learned to make these from her mother when she was growing up in Lithuania or Germany (as us kids had always assumed). My mom laughed and said, “No, I got the recipe from a cottage cheese lid.”

–Christopher Aedo, Portland, Oregon

As with any fake news, family legends about supposedly secret recipes seem to germinate because they feel true. And they’re enabled by the surprising uncertainty we often have about our own history. One reader recounted how he thought his family’s Christmas cookie recipe came—like his family—from Germany. He later learned the cookie was Swedish, and that he was actually Irish and English.

A final explanation for this phenomenon is simply that true originality is rare. Multiple cookbook authors have stories of asking people to send in family recipes and receiving dozens of nearly identical versions. “A lot of that has to do with [recipes sharing] very common ingredients,” says Stephanie Pierson, who wrote in to describe her experience asking for brisket recipes.

With so many people cooking and baking and tweaking similar recipes, it’s hard to call anything original. “Recipes have been propagated through newspapers and community cookbooks since the mid-1800s at least,” writes Maryland food blogger K.M. Harris of American food culture. “Some cookbooks even admit that nearly identical recipes were submitted from multiple community sources.”

A 1950s Betty Crocker advertisement for Apple Pyequick.
A 1950s Betty Crocker advertisement for Apple Pyequick. Advertising Archives/ Alamy

What We Learned

When it comes to secret family recipes, people just want to believe. It’s a powerful idea: A supposedly secret ingredient can turn a recipe from a lid of cottage cheese into a link to an ancestral homeland. A supposedly hallowed family recipe can turn Betty Crocker cake mix into the world’s best lemon cake.

Plenty of readers expressed dismay about discovering that a treasured recipe had a common origin. (Variations on the phrase “I died a little” appeared in multiple accounts.) But more frequently, when readers learned the truth, they accepted it and loved the recipe more than ever. The cookies and cakes and potato salads were, after all, still associated with childhood memories and departed loved ones.

After Danny Meyer realized that his grandmother’s recipe came from the side of a mayonnaise jar, he started laughing. “Here I thought I had scored this major coup, tracking down this secret recipe,” he recalls. “I looked up to heaven and gave my grandmother a look and started smiling. I was happy.”

Meyer’s barbecue restaurant opened in 2002, and he’s pretty sure they served his grandmother’s potato salad (which was also Hellman’s potato salad) for the first few months.

“I didn’t care,” he says with a laugh. “It was a good recipe.”

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