"Secret family recipes" mostly plagiarised

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/07/secret-family-recipes-most.html


The premise makes for good writing, but cooking is not just about recipes. A recipe is always going to have the same basic set of ingredients, but technique is as, if not more important than ingredients. I think the author is making this more black and white than it really is.


Yeah, but where did Karo syrup get their recipes from, thin air?

Anyway, I have used cookbooks from Betty Crocker to Moosewood, and you end up tinkering with the recipes after you’ve made the same dish a bunch of times. My mom’s recipes were never considered “family secrets” but they also didn’t seem to match what I was finding in cookbooks.


No shit recipes are mostly copied. It’s rare that someone invents something out of thin air, they generally take something existing and make it their own by changing things around or just make it very well.


Breaking news, art is iterative. Authors draw upon others works, musicians rip off other songs, the world we know is a lie :o


Secret Families are mostly adulterated


It’s a plagiarism ouroboros – companies stole recipes passed around by cooks, put them on their bottles and packages, and they’d become ‘family recipes’. That said, Karo Syrup essentially invented pecan pie as we know it.


Yeah, I’m sure some companies definitely invented recipes to promote their own products (Chex Mix comes to mind.)


Exactly. My generational family cookbook now contains: copy/paste Internet recipes with ingredient and measurement changes/additions applied (me), photocopies of cookbook recipes with crossed out ingredients and hand-written additions/annotations (parents), and fully hand-written recipe cards (grandparents) that sometimes show their genesis (“add 1 can of Dole pineapple chunks”) but are titled “Jean’s Pineapple Pecan Pie.”


Another example: I had a Cooking with 7-Up cookbook for a while. Or all the recipes that use Jell-O. I plan to make one tonight, in fact.

To me, what makes something a family recipe is the wildly incompetent substitutions. I try to at least use ingredients that are the same color (substitute an apple for a tomato, or cinnamon for cumin), but my grandmother was a total anarchist. She would substitute milk for chicken, as an example. As far as I can tell, she tried for the same number of ingredients as the original recipe and just improvised the rest. And yet, her cooking was phenomenal.


Last year, I came across a meat loaf recipe in an old email from aunt who passed away several years ago. When I did a search, it was obviously from Kraft, but I still make it now and then, think of her, and enjoy.

(Try it with chili powder, salsa, and a little sour cream.)


It’s just, people prefer to receive recipes in the form of oral tradition (and have shitty standards for historical truth in everyday life). Like, if I bake something and someone asks for the recipe, and I say “I got it out of book X”, they will subsequently say “I made those cookies using bobtato’s secret recipe” even in my presence.

In fairness, people insist on thinking of recipes this way (regardless of the facts) because the conversation / demonstration surrounding the recipe is an integral part of it. Lasagne made from a recipe in Good Housekeeping is not the same as lasagne made from your grandmother showing you that exact same recipe.


I’ve got a copy of the original Crisco cookbook – back when P&G invented Crisco in 1912, nobody would use it, so they came up with a plan: market it as “kosher lard” and write a cookbook using all Crisco recipes, then give the cookbook out for free in all the Jewish delis, bakeries, and restaurants, knowing that they’d pass recipes on to housewives and spread the word. It worked really really well. The cookbook is kind of amazing and has recipes like a “lettuce sandwich for tea” (crustless bread spread with Crisco and topped with lettuce).


Grandma Danke made wonderful chocolate chip cookies that all the young cousins loved. My wife describes sneaking down to the cookie jar in the middle of the night when visiting grandma. When she grew up, she asked for a copy of the recipe and asked about its origin. “From a cookbook, somewhere,” Grandma Danke said, as she copied the 3-by-5 card on which she wrote the recipe. After grandma died, another granddaughter asked for the recipe via Facebook. A cousin who ran a cookie shop said she had a copy, but it was an ordinary recipe and was lost among her other recipes. My wife provided the recipe.

A family recipe does not have to be secret to be beloved. No, it is not the Toll House recipe, but I spotted it in Parade Magazine once.

I baked those cookies for morning refreshments for church for about 20 years. Sometimes I made substitutions and sometimes I made mistakes. If the substitution or mistake made the cookies better, I kept the change. Thus, my recipe was slightly different. For example, my wife developed an allergy to barley, so we switched to whole wheat flour, which took some adjustment of quantity but brought out the flavor of the chocolate chips better. I gave the recipe to whoever asked.

I also baked peanut butter oatmeal cookies from a recipe on the peanut butter jar. Then we moved where that brand of peanut butter was not available, so I lost the recipe. Fortunately, I had written a variant in my recipe book and was able to deduce the original recipe.

And as Sqyntz said, a lot of the recipe is technique, the proper baking and cooling of the cookies to give them the right texture and hardness. I write those instructions as part of the recipe.


Actually, most chefs tell you the opposite: ingredients matter most. No technique or recipe can make a bad ingredient good. I worked at a cooking school for a while, so heard this a lot. And in my own experience it is true.

But this is a nice irony:

"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. "

I know that recipe. It’s been passed around in samisdat form for decades. Sometimes it is passed off as Neiman Marcus, sometimes as Mrs. Field’s. It is basically an oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie recipe with a lot of oatmeal and chips. It’s pretty good. No one really knows where it came from.


For years growing up, I never imagined the “HomeMade Bacon” Mom always made was actually hotdogs flattened with a rolling pin. The day I discovered the secret I cried.


This guy’s recipes were ALL original.


Yes, I’d say there’s a “social capital” aspect to it—a way for the person to display the fact that they have connections to others, and that others are willing to share with them. Edit: also a way of sharing credit and making you look good.

Also, I think there’s an element of respect in saying “bobtato’s secret recipe” even in your presence—because, while they know that you were willing to share the source with them, they don’t know if you really want to share it with everyone; so that way they respectfully allow you to share it or not.

And, if it’s in your presence, it’s also a way of helping the conversation along, as the third person can then turn to you to inquire further about it. So that seems to me like good social skills, a subtle way of making sure everyone present is included in the conversation.

As you said, the conversation / demonstration surrounding the recipe is an integral part of it.