The Dirty Secret of ‘Secret Family Recipes’
February 28, 2018 7:51 AM   Subscribe

The Dirty Secret of ‘Secret Family Recipes’. Surprisingly often, they’re copied from mayo jars and famous cookbooks.
posted by gudrun (109 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
My mother's "recipe" for pumpkin pie came from the Libby's canned pumpkin label, and I prefer it too (so does my husband)--but I'll never pass it off as "mine."
posted by filthy_prescriptivist at 8:03 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

I was looking through a booklet of recipes sold in the tribal gift shop my mom got went she visited our reservation in Oklahoma a few years ago. Most of the recipes were like these, including a couple recipes submitted by the Frito Lay rep from the tribal grocery store, (and there were at least four different recipes for fry bread) and hardly anything traditional and that made me sad. But the hilarious part was that it included the recipe for my favorite dessert, which is not at all Indian but is delicious, shows up at many family gatherings, and is almost exactly the same as Paula Deen's (and everyone else's).
posted by elsietheeel at 8:06 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Before my mom died last year I got the story behind most of our family recipes, which I assumed had been in our family for generations. My mother was a latchkey kid; her mother never taught her to cook. Not long after she married my father this fact became obvious (and problematic). My dad was stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL in the early 1960s. My mother befriended the next door neighbor's black housekeeper, who taught her to cook excellent Alabama-style food.

My dad finished his Army hitch, got a job and moved the family around the country some. This is how I managed to grow up in New York eating chicken fried steak, pintos & cornbread and collard greens.

I understand that some people have trouble with the idea of chicken fried steak. Let me help you out: it is steak that has been battered and fried in the manner of fried chicken. You're welcome.
posted by workerant at 8:08 AM on February 28 [40 favorites]

My grandmother's recipe that was clamored for at family reunions was "Della's Spam and Pineapple." It even made it in a family cookbook. The recipe is in its entirety:

1) Take a can of Spam, chop it up.
2) Take a can of pineapple, open and drain
3) Heat oil in a pan
4) Cook pineapple and Spam in the pan

I'm not even sure if it's complicated enough to have come from a can label, but it's definitely in that spirit.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:09 AM on February 28 [14 favorites]

Came for Nestle Toulouse reference, was not disappointed.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:12 AM on February 28 [9 favorites]

Take a can of Spam, chop it up.

My mother used to pan-fry Spam and diced green pepper, and serve it on Kraft macaroni and cheese. WAS THAT FROM THE BOX?
posted by thelonius at 8:22 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

My mother's famous pie crust is really just a recipe her great-aunt got from the back of a tin of leaf lard in 1922.

The real trick is finding 96-year-old lard.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:25 AM on February 28 [35 favorites]

I think part of this phenomenon comes from a rupture in family cooking traditions in the seventies and eighties. I was just looking through some old recipe boxes that seemed to be mostly forties through eighties, skewing sixties, and it seemed pretty common to copy down cookbook or package recipes. Some of the cards had "Hellman's potato salad" type labels, some of them were just obviously from a book, restaurant or package. Some had adjustments added - notes to use a different cut of meat, change the amount of an ingredient, etc. "Originality" didn't seem especially prized, because these were all aides memoire for women who cooked a lot every day.

My perception is that as work hours lengthened and more women started working or started working full-time, there was a change in how recipes were managed. Cooking from scratch became a bigger deal, especially for anything at all complex, and far fewer people had an ingrained knowledge of how to cook relatively complicated things. So the old recipe boxes and home practices became slightly mystified. Especially since scratch cooking became more complicated - if we're going to make, like, pot roast or chocolate cake from scratch, we are less likely to whip up a quick version that we know so well we don't even think about it, and more likely to choose a recipe with some distinguishing feature.

When I was baking for a weekly event, I knew a chocolate cake recipe, a sweet potato muffin/cake recipe, blueberry buckle, coconut chocolate pudding and a coconut vanilla cake recipe so well that I really didn't need to look at a cookbook - I could put together the chocolate cake and the sweet potato cake in about five minutes each. (Now, of course, I don't remember the recipes.) It really led me to understand that whole "always have a cake ready for company" mid-century thing - if I'd suspected I was likely to have company, I could have had a cake baked and frosted inside an hour.
posted by Frowner at 8:29 AM on February 28 [31 favorites]

This isn't even a secret in my family, my mom's recipe book is literally cutouts and transcriptions of labels and assorted newspaper clippings pasted onto notebook paper in a 3 ring binder.
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:33 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]

I grew up with a great-grandmother's famous chocolate pie that was basically just a completely standard chocolate mousse in a nilla wafer crust. The family was always incredibly resistant to tampering with it--it took many, many years to accept the chocolate being melted in the microwave instead of a double boiler even though the microwave is fine and a million times easier. Since I've been out on my own, I've had some serious thoughts about actually trying out some alternate chocolate mousse recipes, but it's a little scary to venture past the known that way.

I realized at some point that all the best things we were actually eating at holidays since the mid-2000s were actually not secret family recipes but highly-reviewed recipes various people had found on the internet. It takes some of the magic out of it, but the holiday dinners for my last couple Christmases with my family were markedly better than the holiday dinners of my childhood, and now that I don't go home for holidays, it's reassuring in a way that I can eat just as well as they do.
posted by Sequence at 8:37 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]

I feel almost honor-bound* to mention that while the recipe for Toll House Cookies has for sure been passed off as a family recipe many times, it really did start as an invention from a restaurant owner, not Nestle. The Toll House was a real place in Whitman MA that operated from 1817 till it burned down in 1984 (there's still a big historic sign there, though sadly it is now wedged between a Wendy's and a Walgreens). Ruth Wakefield invented chocolate chip cookies there in 1936, and when they got popular she sold Nestle the rights to print the recipe (with the Toll House name) in return for a lifetime supply of chocolate.

In other house-related-recipes-that-weren't-marketing-inventions, Parker House Rolls originated at Boston's Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House).

Thus ends this random episode of MA food history.

[ * honor-bound because my parents' wedding reception was at the Toll House when it still existed ]
posted by tocts at 8:43 AM on February 28 [33 favorites]

I have five secret family recipes that really were handed down for generations. One of them is a fruitcake, and it will probably die with me because I am the only one who still makes it, no-one really likes it, and it is expensive and time-consuming to make. Another is my great-grandmother's recipe for platzek. I got it from my grandmother after my great-grandmother died. Trouble is, the recipe is impossible to follow as there are no actual measurements, just directions to use so many scoops of flour, or just enough water. Babcha always kept everyone supplied with platzek, so no-one else ever made it and she took the secrets of that recipe to the grave with her.

Every other "family recipe" was cut out of a newspaper, copied from a cookbook, and more likely than not involves a tin of mushroom soup or something equally vile.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:59 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I was horrified to discover that my grandmother's Thanksgiving dressing (not stuffing; we're Southern) has as a primary component Pepperidge Farm cornbread dressing mix. I mean, it's dressed up from there, but that's the base.

I expect this is a common story in my generation -- my grandparents were born 100 years ago; my parents were born in 1940. By the 50s and 60s, packaged convenience foods were all the rage, so it's not surprising they wormed their way into even traditional Southern kitchens where garden produce was a staple.

But it's still kinda shocking.
posted by uberchet at 9:03 AM on February 28

Yep. My wife, to this day, makes a cake that is identified by her family as "grandma's pistachio cake", and it's literally made of boxed cake mix*, pistachio jello**, and hershey's syrup*** (plus a bundt pan****).

(note: it is delicious as hell and one of my favorite things and its origin does not diminish its awesomeness)

* Specifically Duncan Hines' Yellow Cake
** Mixed with the cake batter
*** The recipe is so old it calls for a half can of syrup, though you can still find hershey's in a can sometimes. Mixed with some of the cake batter and the chocolate syrup and put first into the pan with the rest of the batter on top of it so as it cooks it basically spirals itself into the cake because of how the cake solidifies first up the side of the pan
**** Bundt cakes rule, whoever thinks they're like old and out of style is missing out

posted by tocts at 9:09 AM on February 28 [11 favorites]

they’re copied from mayo jars

The family secret is knowing which mayo jar to copy from.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:10 AM on February 28 [22 favorites]

After my great-grandmother passed away, I longed for her lattice-top cherry pie, and I wished I had been old enough to ask about it when I knew her. Come to find out the secret was Del Monte canned cherry pie filling. I'm sure it was no secret, though. Mamaw was a farm wife and had a lot of people to feed, and she was not lazy. She regularly went through the whole business of cleaning chitlins, a filthy day-long preparation that horrified my young mother. And all that Mamaw did, she did for a family where women didn't even sit down to eat with the men until the '70s. So she was glad for any labor-saving she could get, and I for one am glad she had it.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:11 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]

My most popular recipe I got by way of Metafilter.

Of course, at some point, one of my mom's good friends asked that I bring ice cream and caramel rum sauce to serve with it, and that definitely has been a serving suggestion I'm going to keep.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:19 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]

My mom got married before she graduated high school, and I treasure the recipe box she put together when she was 17. It contains twenty index cards, nineteen of which are variations of crepe fillings and one is my great grandfathers commercial pasta sauce recipe.
posted by annathea at 9:22 AM on February 28 [9 favorites]

Idon't think we have "secret recipes", other than a few hand-written recipes that were passed from my grandmothers aides to her to my mother, like some small chouriço pastries that were popular at parties. The rest were recipes from a tv cook (my mother was an avid collector of his magazines). For instance, because I dislike store-bought chocolate salami, I tracked down the original recipe on one of the books.
posted by lmfsilva at 9:24 AM on February 28

That SPAM, green pepper, and Mac'n'Cheese dish is gonna be cooked tonight at the snwod household.
posted by snwod at 9:26 AM on February 28 [8 favorites]

The only family recipe I have is "gooey cake"...which starts with a box of yellow cake mix, one pound of confectioner's sugar, some eggs, and a pound of cream cheese. Not a lot to it.
posted by Four Ds at 9:26 AM on February 28

also I don't know about this but there is probably some women's studies paper written about the "secret recipe" as a token of value in a mid-century world filled with new kinds of sexual competition and/or anxiety over cultural assimilation
posted by Countess Elena at 9:27 AM on February 28 [9 favorites]

My recipe notebook has always been titled "Recipes Swiped from Cookbooks." (I really should amend that to read "Cookbooks and the Internet.")

This article reminded me a little bit of the many widely circulated versions of the cutting-the-ends-off-the-ham story.
posted by JanetLand at 9:29 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]

We don't really have family recipes to speak of - we have some family favorites, but I don't think anyone is under the illusion that we originated them. We've definitely got family techniques that don't really rise to "recipe", like a particular way of making a quick faux-buttercream, or variants on "pasta and garlic and olive oil and shrimp plus or minus chopped vegetables".

I actually have created a couple of cake and pudding recipes - that is, things where I changed the original ingredients, proportions and process enough that the result is obviously, significantly different from the original - brown sugar molasses coconut pudding and brown sugar vanilla vegan cake, based off a coconut blancmange and a really gross vegan white cake. I created both of those when I was making desserts for a group every single week, sometimes twice, and as preconditions I needed to be baking a lot so that I had a strong sense of how things went together, I needed to have access to a diversity of ingredients so that I could fool around with different things and I needed to have the leisure time/social position to risk failure. It would have been much harder if I'd been cooking for a family every day while also being responsible for a lot of other work, and if failures would genuinely have been held against me.

The big thrill of the pudding recipe was when two retired ladies asked me for the recipe. It's an old-fashioned pudding (I'd have to look up the recipe myself now, I wrote it down but don't remember it) with a not-too-sweet taste, and I felt that people of older generations were more likely to have experience with molasses-based desserts.
posted by Frowner at 9:31 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

I have a few family recipes -- but there's a limit to how original anything can be. I use my great-grandmother's cinnamon babka, and i have never found this specific kind of recipe (all yolks in the dough, all whites in the cinnamon part, in an angel food style pan (I use bundt) and not a loaf). Still, I am sure it is out there.

I can't really remember which other recipes are supposedly family. I know a lot of them were from friends of my great-grandmother. But tastes change, they're special but not my favourites anymore.

Except that babka, which is the best.
posted by jeather at 9:31 AM on February 28

brown sugar molasses coconut pudding

oh my goodness this sounds delectable
posted by halation at 9:37 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]

"Della's Spam and Pineapple."

I hate pineapple, and yet I recently tried grilled bacon-wrapped pineapple skewers and it was a revelation. I think this is the SPAM-ier version of that and I bet it's pretty good.
posted by capricorn at 9:41 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

The time and labor-saving factors are important -- especially combined with the power of 20th century advertising. Even if you weren't doing anything particularly labor-intensive, buying something that would conform to what everyone else was eating was considered a more "civilized" option. (This lasted into the 90s, even. I can't tell you how much the kids I went to middle school with recoiled at the sight of pomegranate in my lunch until marketing made it seem palatable to them.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:42 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

Also Sargento's Cheesy Chicken Chili Stew is my favorite from-a-package recipe.
posted by capricorn at 9:45 AM on February 28

I have a few copied recipe cards copied from my paternal grandmother, one supposedly from each of her and her husband's immigrant families (Dundee Cake [Scottish] and "Russian tea cakes" [Polish]), but it is entirely possible that they were copied out of recipe books in the 50s-60s. And when the maternal line is interrupted (or not interested in cooking), then family recipes fade away; my maternal grandmother died when my mom was in college, so I think my mom mostly got her recipes from books and trying to get food on the table. We do have a lot of well-used recipes in my family though, so I could see those being passed on:

From my mom: Potato salad, 5 cup salad (one of our HS home ec recipies), chicken and rice, dump cake, chocolate pudding pie, homemade applesauce, hamburger soup
From my dad: fish chowder, mashed potatoes, endless applesauce chocolate chip cookie variations
And now me, with my family: tangy macaroni & cheese, chicken pot pie, broccoli salad

I try to cook from scratch, but I am almost always going to my few cookbooks to look up the "favorites". I have a few tweaks to the Joy of Cooking's pancake recipe, but why not use it if it works?
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 9:51 AM on February 28

Oh yes, this is the story behind many of my family’s recipes. My mom is always scandalized that I’ve made a lot of my own modifications, like I use lard and/or butter in pie crust instead of Crisco and will make cherry pie filling from scratch and not a can (i don’t have kids, i can totally sit in front of Netflix with a giant bowl of cherries and pit them). We recently had a pie-making lesson for a new family member, and our techniques have diverged a LOT between generations, which was interesting to observe. We never would have otherwise, we usually just share completed pies.

My great-aunt’s stuffing also contains Pepperidge Farm stuffing, I think. Most of the recipes my parents made regularly when I grew up came from sauce-splattered clippings from magazines. I still have a soft spot for instant mashed potatoes like my dad used to make (extra butter, short on the water).
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:03 AM on February 28

I really can't believe this hasn't been posted yet.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 10:11 AM on February 28 [12 favorites]

my mom's recipe book is literally cutouts and transcriptions of labels and assorted newspaper clippings pasted onto notebook paper in a 3 ring binder.
posted by Dr. Twist at 11:33 AM on February 28

My mother, her sister, and her mother all had index card boxes, notebooks, and binder like you describe, Dr. Twist. But they also had many notes where they'd tweaked the recipe to improve it--increasing the amount of butter, adding a teaspoon of a flavor extract, changing the temperature and cooking time, etc.. Those changes made big differences in flavor and texture.

The one recipe I know that was entirely unmodified by family was my grandmother's jam cake recipe. In poking around, I have every reason to believe that Granny got it from one of Cissy Gregg's columns. Gregg was the legendary (at least, locally) food editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and her recipes were collected far and wee throughout the Commonwealth for decades. One of her most famous was her jam cake recipe, which I think has been reprinted in the C-J every year since it first ran.

A few years ago, the C-J ran what amounted to a giant correction about the jam cake. It turns out that Gregg had received the recipe from a local cab driver, a black woman named Thelma Bancroft, who'd given Gregg both a lift and the recipe one day in 1959.

The recipe has now been re-christened "Thelma Bancroft's Jam Cake" by the paper. I like to think that Granny tried it, ate it, and decided "Clearly a black woman made this, so no changes are needed."

My granny's most popular recipe, made without fail every Christmas, was a slightly modified version of Cissy Gregg's Kentucky Whiskey Cake recipe. Instead of bourbon, that good Baptist woman sought out, acquired, and substituted moonshine.
posted by magstheaxe at 10:14 AM on February 28 [12 favorites]

My grandmother's ("grandmother's") chocolate cherry fudge cake is so good we had a cake decorator friend make it as the groom's cake for our wedding. She and another friend engineered a spray of chocolate-dipped Twizzlers that came up out of the center.

My grandmother was a dirt-poor backwoods farm girl who grew up cooking for the survival of 13 mouths, not art or craft. She and my soldier grandfather leveled up like five classes instantly because of the war, and these back-of-box and magazine recipes could be trusted to work right the first time and every time, were budget-friendly, accommodated a very limited availability of groceries (and the new universality of specific brands), looked nice (for a certain aesthetic) and pleased the palate, especially if you'd ever gone hungry or eaten burned/spoiled food as the only alternate option to going hungry. Really, these recipes were for them what internet recipes are for us - the no-knead breads and cake pops and Instant Pot Kalua Pork - a sort of through-line from neighbor to neighbor.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:15 AM on February 28 [20 favorites]

Our family does have what could be considered a secret family recipe, originating from one of my great-great-grandmothers (father's side) but known to most from my grandmother (mother's side). It is a simple cookie recipe that makes lovely cakey plain cookies.

The secret is not the ingredients. The secret is getting the cookies to turn out right. Some of us have tried, and before I had to stop using wheat I think that I got the closest. But as far as I know, no one has tried in several years. I've also never found a recipe that gives similar results in any cookbook. Cookies recipes fall into a handful of basic types, and these cookies are closer to a biscuit in many ways.

All of the other family recipes were undoubtedly copied from some package or cookbook at some point though.
posted by monopas at 10:17 AM on February 28

My mother's mom was a terrible cook, and she was a good one, so I always assumed she learned from cookbooks and the backs of boxes. But I can't find where she got her recipe for her delicious chocolate pound cake (she made it in a bundt pan but I don't know if that was required) so hit me up if you have a good one because I miss that cake. It was not too sweet, I think she must have used cocoa, there was no fudge or gooyness, but it was moist because it had some ungodly number of eggs/amount of butter in it, like a good poundcake should.
posted by emjaybee at 10:19 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

On some Food Network show like Holiday Baking Championship or whatever two people were teamed up and it turned out they had the same secret family recipe for something (piecrust?) and I was like "right, because their grandparents got it off the back off the same box sixty years ago" and it's nice to have been vindicated in that.

I also think this is pretty reasonable? Very few recipes are really a secret (unless you're my grandmother who was...difficult and liked making herself important) so usually they're just a collection of "here's how we make this thing we make a lot". I don't so much have secret family recipes as a subscription to Cook's Illustrated but that'll still be what my kiddo remembers from her childhood when she looks back and thinks about the fruit tarts her mom used to make.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:20 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

My mother's "recipe" for pumpkin pie came from the Libby's canned pumpkin label, and I prefer it too (so does my husband)--but I'll never pass it off as "mine."

Hahaha. I came in here to post this precise story. Are you secretly one of my siblings? Everyone who tasted her pumpkin pie begged for the secret recipe, and she always took great delight in shrugging and pointing out it was written on the Libby's can.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 10:23 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I don't know how I could forget this:

So like many black women of her era, my grandmother worked as a domestic for various families in the county. At one point she had an extended stint with a Mrs. Lackey. I think this was in the forties or fifties.

Mrs. Lackey had in her possession what she called her "One Hundred Year Old Chocolate Cake Recipe". Per her, it had been passed down in her family for a century or thereabouts. My grandmother, an excellent cook, was required to make it every Sunday for Sunday dinner. So she did, every Sunday for months.

It was a fantastic cake. My grandmother did right by Mrs. Lackey and asked if she could have the recipe. Mrs. Lackey, per my grandmother, laughed in her face and said "Why, no!"

We in the family can only suppose that Mrs. Lackey didn't exactly understand how cooking works. Regardless, Granny came home, grabbed pen and paper, and wrote down the recipe that she'd memorized after months of practice. Her kids and us grandkids got it for every birthday.

Soooo...not copied from the back of a box or jar, really. But let me tell you, recipes copied from racists are some of the best you'll ever have.
posted by magstheaxe at 10:29 AM on February 28 [128 favorites]

My grandma's famous mostaccioli recipe was a family favorite for 25 years. She died before I could learn it from her, but I was thrilled to find out that it was from the back of a pasta box. So I figured I could maybe get in touch with the company and find it.

Then I was un-thrilled to find out that it was from the back of a pasta box for R&F, a St. Louis brand that no longer exists.

Then I was thrilled again to find out that apparently everybody's grandma in St. Louis used this recipe. Someone wrote in to the newspaper in St. Louis seeking it, and 7 different people sent it in.
posted by AgentRocket at 10:39 AM on February 28 [27 favorites]

Pepperidge Farm’s stuffing is just white and/or sourdough and/or pumpernickel bread (depending on which blend you buy), dried and cubed and shaken with a bunch of herbs. There’s nothing “secret” in their recipe that would create a different flavor or texture than making your own bread and cubing it yourself—except for the extra day or so of baking and preparation. I wouldn’t consider pre-made stuffing to be all that much of a cheat.

I’ve got a recipe that I reverse-engineered from a restaurant that subsequently went out of business, changed up over the years, and now consider to be “mine” as it has evolved significantly from the original. This recipe uses, among other things, Alfredo sauce out of a jar. (I like Bertolli’s.) I’ve made my own Alfredo sauce, but it was a gigantic pain in the ass, took forever, used about $15 of cream and Parmesan, and changed the flavor profile of the dish to something I didn’t want. Fuck that! I went directly back to my $3 jar of Alfredo and will not apologize.

But I can't find where she got her recipe for her delicious chocolate pound cake (she made it in a bundt pan but I don't know if that was required) so hit me up if you have a good one because I miss that cake.

That is such a great coincidence. There’s a James Beard award-winning bakery in town that has unbelievable chocolate pound cake, and I have a good recipe for regular pound cake, and cocoa powder, and I was going to experiment this weekend. A Bundt pan is not required to make a pound cake—they are frequently made in loaf pans. But I like Bundt pans and have adjusted my recipe accordingly.

This is the recipe I use for regular pound cake, with the following changes for making in a Bundt pan: adjust servings to 15 to make a half recipe (20 is better, but the measurements get a little persnickety), add 1 tsp salt, add 1 tbsp vanilla, use heavy cream instead of milk. Bake for 45-50 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. (I have a pack of kabob skewers for this.)

To get out of the Bundt pan, cool for 20-30 minutes, then bang sharply a couple times against floor and tip cake out onto counter. Then wrap the cake in Saran Wrap until completely cooled. This sounds like the surface of your cake will get mushy from condensation BUT IT WILL NOT. I’ve done it many times. Even if you overbake your cake a little, this will preserve the moisture in the cake.

Chef Google says that to include cocoa powder in something, you replace half a cup of flour with half a cup of cocoa and adjust accordingly to get more chocolate flavor. That’s what I plan to try.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:42 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]

This doesn't surprise me at all.

I suspect that when cooking was a lengthy daily affair, family cooks had less to prove. Now if you use prepackaged ingredients or recipes from the back of a box, there are connotations of lesser-quality make-doism, but I wonder if it was always that way. I can easily imagine a woman of my grandmother's generation being excited about new foods, and seeing no shame in collecting recipes from anywhere.

Now that fewer people are able to cook, people look down on recipes that contain prepackaged ingredients - like, Rachel Ray catches a lot of flack for using prepackaged ingredients because that makes it not "real" cooking.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:50 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

Recently at work I cataloged a cash book for a Toronto business with entries dated 1905-1907. The first two pages had the word CASH crossed out and replaced with CAKE and were entirely filled with cake recipes clipped out from newspapers.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:53 AM on February 28 [30 favorites]

My wife is famous among her friends and family for her baked goods. They go crazy over her pecan pie, which she admits is from the side of the Karo Corn Syrup bottle. Her only recommendation is to use dark rather than light corn syrup. The thing most cooks will admit is that the crust is what makes or breaks a pie, but her pie crust recipe mostly comes from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Although the secret is how to cut in the butter and balancing out the flour and water while it is being rolled out.

She is also famous for her cookies, early in our relationship, she talked about how she grew up using a very old copy, probably first edition of Betty Crocker's Cooky Book. She often lamented that the book disappeared when she got older. E-commerce and the internet were still a little newish then, but I still found a copy for sale. They still sell is in all of its 1963 glory, but the binding is much better with the newer copies. Almost all of her cookie recipes are from this book.
posted by Badgermann at 10:57 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

I make sure that the recipes I use are kept with the same titles I found them under, if for no other reason than to fool future generations. Keep them busy trying to figure out how they’re related to Uncle Menache with his challah bread or Aunt Millie with her potato pancakes. Forget dubious secret family recipes, my descendants will have entirely imaginary family members.
posted by dr_dank at 11:05 AM on February 28 [10 favorites]

My grandmother had a famous fudge recipe. It was probably off a box. She kept it a secret until a couple of years before her death, at which point she gave it out.

The real secret part of the recipe is that fudge is really hard to make. I gave it more than a couple of goes, and I imagine if if I tried a bunch more times eventually I'd get it right. But to get there I'd have a whole lot of shitty fudge.

That Onion article amused the hell out of me. I make souffles at least once a week, but have never made lasagna. (pro-tip to easy souffles; make them in individual ramekins, they'll never fall on you).
posted by el io at 11:09 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]

My mum's baked apple pudding recipe is secret because she literally lost it. I haven't had that pudding in almost 20 years. Pls come back to me, pudding recipe.
posted by Stonkle at 11:14 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

My great grandmother was a food writer. Mostly, her recipes are good and similar to all other recipes of her generation, but her chopped liver recipe was outstanding. And it is lost. My cousin and aunt have a hand written version, but it is clearly not what we grew up with. I had a version, but I can't find it (I have notebooks back from when I was fifteen, but seem to have lost this single one). I've searched all public records but there is nothing. It seems it was her pride and joy and she wouldn't give it to anyone. Well now we know where that get's you.
posted by mumimor at 11:16 AM on February 28 [3 favorites]

We have a large extended family, and the one hard and fast rule is that everyone gathers for Thanksgiving. I mean, the numbers vary a little every year depending on who's away for college or military service (or as in one recent year, in hospital), but otherwise everyone shows up. The average number of people seated for dinner (yes, seated! With formal china and crystal and real silverware!) is 25.

My grandmother made it all from scratch, and then after she passed my aunts have continued that tradition. I've been in the kitchen many times and can personally attest to that fact. As the years have gone by though they've farmed out some of the work, mostly desserts (always pies, we don't serve anything else) and appetizers.

Before my grandmother passed I spent an afternoon with her having her teach me how to make the family apple pie recipe. It's a lard crust, and shouldn't be too hard, but it just never turns out quite right in my opinion.

One of my cousins is the official apple pie maker, so I reached out to her this year to ask her for pointers in improving my crust.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when she laughed and told me that for the last ten years she's been using a store-bought frozen crust.
posted by vignettist at 11:18 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Besides my ancient and worn copy of Joy of Cooking, my most used cookbooks are really just advertisements for food corporations ... "The Story of Crisco" from 1914 ((I substitute butter, lard, or oil for recipes that call for Crisco or melted Crisco), a 1945 copy of the Purity Cookbook from Purity Flour Mills, and a 1963 edition of Betty Crocker's Cooky Book. Many of the well-used recipes have annotations and changes hand written on them.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:21 AM on February 28

My dad for years attempted to make a real pumpkin pie that was any good. He'd go out and get a pumpkin, clean it out, blend it, sweeten and season and produce something that was the right size and shape as a pumpkin pie, but failed on every other test available. The one year he made a great pumpkin pie was the year he didn't get around to using a pumpkin and got a can of pumpkin filling. I don't know if he followed the instructions on the can, but it was a truly excellent pie. He also couldn't keep a pie crust from falling apart to save his life.

The only recipes that I inherited from my dad was his pancake recipe. And to be honest, pancakes are bulletproof. The worst you can do is either burn them to a crisp or forget some crucial ingredient, like eggs or other binding agent. I can still make pancakes after only a few hours of sleep and before I've had coffee. But like I said, they're easy.

I wish I had thought to ask from my grandmother's marmalade recipe. Not that I think she devised it from scratch. But more because I'd like to know which source she got it from as there are a variety of recipes out there.

Given just how exacting baking can be, I'm not surprised that so many sweets are using tested recipes. (Part of what blows my mind on The Great British Bakeoff is that they actually have an intuitive sense of how things will interact when baked.) Stovetop recipes are easy to come up with and replicate.
posted by Hactar at 11:26 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Something like the following might be a tell that the recipe didn't originate with great-grandma:

8 oz butter
1 c. sugar
1 c. Henderson's® Deluxe All-Purpose Enriched White Flour™
2 eggs
posted by kurumi at 11:29 AM on February 28 [7 favorites]

Every Christmas I make this fudge recipe that my mom and grandmother both idea of its origin but I would not at all be surprised if it was from some can label or some issue of "Ladies Home Journal" from 1963.
posted by Captain_Science at 11:32 AM on February 28

As a cookbook collector and library employee, this is a subject close to my heart. Roughly around the turn of the 20th century, food companies figured out that incorporating recipes into their advertising significantly boosted sales of their products. At about the same time, teaching home economics became a thing, especially during the World Wars, in order to help women cook under rationing. Malnutrition was also being realized as an actual health issue. With the growth of food science and home economics, educators were going out and teaching kids and homemakers how to cook basic, comparatively healthful food.

Now factor in the growth of the church/club/community cookbooks as a fundraising device, and you'll see how favorite recipes, regardless of origin, began migrating and evolving along the way. Community cookbook collections are excellent research tools not only for learning what and how people ate in different areas over time, but to observe how specific recipes changed over time.

If you're into the history of food, this is a source of endless interest - and amusement, too.

And guess what, folks - there is a fabulous free searchable online recipe database from one of the largest community fundraiser cookbook publishers in the US! contains well over a million recipes. It enables users to search either by recipe name or by ingredients. If you can't find your mom's famous recipe for whatever, but remember some of the ingredients, search there. You'll undoubtedly get dozens of hits - just review each recipe to find the version that best matches your memory.
posted by Lunaloon at 11:34 AM on February 28 [47 favorites]

The thing with cooking is that it's knack, like having a green thumb or being a great poker player. On the one hand, anyone who is reasonably careful, has the proper materials and can afford to spend the time can be an adequate cook or play adequate poker. But greatness comes from some impossible-to-learn agglomeration of tiny factors.

My family has a knack for baking, especially for sweets. We tend to be slightly above average but not really memorable cooks, but our cakes and cookies are always good, our meringues are always lofty, our custards don't break. I'm not sure it's really down to practice, since everyone cooks non-sweets far more often than sweets and yet our sweets are really quite good and our mains are just tasty. And yet this does not extend to piecrust. Everyone in the family can turn out a middling piecrust - not tough, not flavorless - but we just can't get past good-enough. My father's mother made fine pie crusts, but for some reason none of the rest of us can do it.

Also, making pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkins is at best an utter waste of time. Every time someone sneers at canned pumpkin and boast of their hours of labor over a field pumpkin, I imagine everyone at their table putting on a brave face over a sad inferior pie - no doubt with a whole wheat/olive oil crust and coconut "sugar".
posted by Frowner at 11:37 AM on February 28 [4 favorites]

I was just gonna say. Canned pumpkin is a godsend. Roasting your own pie pumpkin is like plucking your own Thanksgiving turkey. You just don’t gotta do it.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:40 AM on February 28 [5 favorites]

The Story of Crisco cookbook I mentioned above has an absolutely fantastic and well-spiced pumpkin pie recipe. Sometimes I make it using a pumpkin (the secret is to blend the pumpkin after you cook it to get rid of any stringy texture), sometimes I use canned, really depends on what is available and how much time I have to fuss over it. I can't tell the difference between the two
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:41 AM on February 28

The one time my wife and I attempted to make a pumpkin pie from scratch, it was actually a success in the sense that we did wind up with an edible pie, but it took so long we were both so annoyed and tired of pie-making by the time it was finished that these negative emotions outweighed the positive experience of eating the pie. We also probably spent more on the electricity used to power our stove than a store-bought pie would have cost.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:46 AM on February 28 [1 favorite]

My dad for years attempted to make a real pumpkin pie that was any good. He'd go out and get a pumpkin, clean it out, blend it, sweeten and season and produce something that was the right size and shape as a pumpkin pie, but failed on every other test available. The one year he made a great pumpkin pie was the year he didn't get around to using a pumpkin and got a can of pumpkin filling. I don't know if he followed the instructions on the can, but it was a truly excellent pie. He also couldn't keep a pie crust from falling apart to save his life.

The other problem from-scratch pumpkin people have is texture; these is a reason why canned pumpkin is mostly made of squash.
posted by grandiloquiet at 11:52 AM on February 28 [5 favorites]

these cookies are closer to a biscuit in many ways.
Depending on where you're from this is such a confusing sentence.
posted by glasseyes at 11:55 AM on February 28 [11 favorites]

My dad was stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL in the early 1960s.

Omg! So was my grandfather!
posted by functionequalsform at 12:06 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Except that babka, which is the best.

jeather, you can't just throw that out there and not share. Unless it's a treasured secret family recipe, in which case I understand. But if it's not...MeMail me? :D

Also anyone unhappy with their pumpkin pies would probably be far more satisfied if they switched to sweet potato.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:11 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

I am at work! I do not keep the recipe with me.
posted by jeather at 12:15 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

And guess what, folks - there is a fabulous free searchable online recipe database from one of the largest community fundraiser cookbook publishers in the US!

Super cool! I am very into food history, and love looking through stuff like that.

I'll also add that you can read historic cookbooks on HathiTrust, if you're into that sort of thing (your library may also have an agreement that will allow you to download the whole book as a .pdf, too).

By coincidence, I'm making my grandmother's recipe for baked beans this afternoon. She was from upstate New York, not Boston, but she moved to Boston in her 20s and no doubt got the recipe from some cookbook there (bean dinners being a big community thing that everyone would contribute to).

I don't think there's any family lore around her recipes, and in fact I never even met her (by the time I was alive she lived alone on a farm on the other side of the country, and was never interested in meeting me, or even talking on the phone). What we do have is all her old cookbooks. My mom got them all when she died, and they were full of notes from throughout her life. Notes on things she'd make when my mom was a kid and notes on things for the folks at the senior center towards the end of her life (along the lines of "10-7-94 made for seniors, were very popular. sub 1/2 chocolate w/ raisins").

That sort of takes on the role of family lore for us. This woman was by all accounts incredibly smart, but she was forced into a domestic role she never wanted. She adapted to it by taking a somewhat scientific approach to her cooking, researching recipes and methodically improving them over time. I think it must have been more intellectually stimulating that way. She had a great interest in history, so she'd go out of her way to recreate the old-fashioned stuff she'd grown up with (like prune whip, which is a dessert I keep threatening to make for my girlfriend). She'd experiment with formulas, adjusting things here and there and keeping diligent notes for her benefit and, indirectly, ours.

She was also very interested in the latest books on nutrition, especially people like Adelle Davis. I'll probably make brown bread this afternoon to go with the beans, and I'll be using the same recipe she did, from Cooking With Wholegrains, by Ellen and Vrest Orton (of Vermont Country Store fame). Except in my grandmother's old copy of the book, there are notes indicating the addition of brewer's yeast and dry milk powder, to boost the vitamin content. My mom says that's how her personality shows through in recipes like that.

So even if my grandmother died when I was a teenager and I never met her, there's a kind of personal connection in the same cookbooks being passed down and the same recipes being cooked for more than half a century. That means something. It's probably not incidental that I always make the recipe for Vermont brown bread, which is the superior one, according to my grandmother's notes.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:39 PM on February 28 [9 favorites]

My mom spent years asking for my grandma’s matzah ball recipe; when she finally gave it to her it was literally a recipe clipped from a box of Manishewitz matzah meal circa the early 1960s with the hand-scrawled annotation “use seltzer instead of water”.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:48 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]

Re: pumpkin pie filling. Back when I worked for a seed company, the seed variety we sold to farmers who had contracted with the canneries to supply them with the 'pumpkins' for their canned filling was Golden Delicious winter squash. As specified in the grower contract.
posted by Lunaloon at 12:55 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]

My grandmother was an amazing cook of traditional Greek food. Only recently did my mom unearth the source of many of her recipies: a cookbook compiled by the local church and sold to parishioners.
posted by deanc at 12:57 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

I guess another thing to note is that many of the back-of-box recipes and magazine recipes were rarely completely original revolutionary things nobody had ever heard of before*. The reason the pumpkin pie recipe from the back of the Libby can is so good is that someone working for Libby collected up all the known variations of pumpkin pie (and probably all related pies - sweet potato etc), boiled it down to common denominators, uncomplicated some of the steps/ingredients to use commonly-available shortcuts (shortening or margarine instead of rendering lard, canned evaporated milk instead of reducing your own or obtaining cream, maybe self-raising flour or corn syrup or similar), and included their employer's other brand name products as applicable.

The recipes are pretty good because the product was pretty good to start with, and food manufacturing companies were in many cases repackaging a good thing.

*I mean, yes, the 50s-70s were an especially weird time of all the companies trying to find New! Revolutionary! Ways! to get people to buy their processed foods and that's how we end up with banana dick salad and the entire Jell-O oeuvre. Still, almost all that stuff was made out of recognizable components, it's just that pineapple had been a difficult seasonal product until the advent of canned pineapple and people were taking a lot of very unregulated drugs and stuff got out of hand. (A bunch of that stuff doesn't entirely suck, either, even if it's sort of unnecessary. There's a reason Jell-O salads and all those cool whip fluff desserts persist: they're good, especially as "special occasion" foods where they sort of scratch an itch but you wouldn't eat them every day.)

It's probably entirely likely that the church cookbook/magazine/label recipes really did more or less exist in the wild in very similar forms and got handed down that way too.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:04 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]

I made pumpkin pie from fresh Hubbard squash this year and it was so much better than canned! But I’ll be honest, I don’t love a custard-y pumpkin pie so I like a lot of squash flavor.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:05 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

All this "gotcha" business about canned pumpkin really being squash, with the implication that therefore we should wrestle with actual pumpkins, confuses me. I mean, if pumpkin pie filling were actually, like, brandied eels or ground up dental picks or something, I'd be bothered. Or if pumpkin pie filling were disgusting and filled with adulterants. But no, it's just...a different squash than we envision when we say "pumpkin". (I'd always assumed that canned pumpkin was full of additives, but Libby's, at least, is just pumpkin.)

If someone told me that what I'd always known as cornmeal was really amaranth meal, I wouldn't be racing for my grindstone on the premise that I'd been duped and real cornmeal must be so much more delicious.
posted by Frowner at 1:05 PM on February 28 [10 favorites]

We always used to make pumpkin pie with butternut squash when I was growing up. My mom would steam it and mash it. It was cheaper than pumpkin, and it tasted just as good, if not better. Nowadays none of us has any problem using canned pumpkin, or whatever squash it actually is.

There's an interesting trend with all these recipes, which is that a lot of them, regardless of origin, still reflect cultural or ethnic ties in the family. Like, my family never made potato salad because my family's heritage leaned more towards stuff like beans and chowder (or on my dad's side of the family, my great uncle's famous omelettes). Other people mention matzah balls and Greek food, or fudge, or whatnot. Curation matters! The recipes your family members chose to cook say something about them, even if they didn't come up with the exact formulas on their own.

My other (late :( RIP) grandmother wasn't a good cook, and didn't pretend to be. Being able to reliably make something people will enjoy for generations isn't something that just comes naturally to everyone. It's always worth celebrating when someone can do that. Frankly, I'm just glad to hear so many people were able to forge ties over food.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:17 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

It's like tomatoes: if you want to use tomatoes in a sauce recipe, you can grow your own, clean them and blanch and peel them... or you can save a few months and use high-quality canned tomatoes, which will nearly always be as good or better. Because they are varieties chosen for canning well and grown in a prime environment for them and go directly to the cannery from the field.
posted by tavella at 1:20 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]

The real secret part of the recipe is that fudge is really hard to make. I gave it more than a couple of goes, and I imagine if if I tried a bunch more times eventually I'd get it right. But to get there I'd have a whole lot of shitty fudge.

There's a really good, easy recipe on the back of the Marshmallow Fluff jar, or at least there used to be. Actually, I think the one I used to make was that "fantasy fudge" on the back of Kraft Marshmallow Creme. But they're probably all more or less the same, to be honest!

As kind of a counterpoint, I have tons of "secret family recipes," which are basically just how my family cooks. Like, this is how you make salad dressing, this is how you roast a chicken, this is how you make hot carrots, or cold carrots, or beets, or chicken livers, or tongue, or egg salad, or small fish (like smelts), or big fish (like perch or bigger), or cold fish, or a steak. Etc etc etc. It's all very tasty, but ridiculously simple and forgiving and way, way too humble to show up in a cookbook or on a label. The complicated part is usually processing the food to the point that you can cook it. And when in doubt, roast/simmer it gently with plenty of butter and rosemary or fry it in a pan with thyme or cut it up small and serve it cold in a vinaigrette.

I actually like those label recipes, though, because they're usually tasty and reliable -- my favorite is Betty Crocker. I seek them out because I know I'll probably like the result. But those recipes are actually more complicated and exacting than my everyday cooking. Kind of silly, but there you are.
posted by rue72 at 1:28 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

I still remember my delight when a Japanese-American friend offered me some of his mom's homemade yellow curry and it tasted just like my (German Polish) Grandma's recipe; we discovered that his mom's recipe was from a magazine, which is almost certainly where my Grandma got hers.

Tangentially related: I grew up in a part of the Southwest where "Chili" is either green or red. My Grandma was the only person I knew who made the kind of Kidney beans and hamburger stew that people outside the region call chili, so the first time I had it out of a can around age 10 it was sort of a revelation. I had assumed we were just weird.

Come to think of it, the thing she called "Borscht" was cabbage stew that had never seen a beet.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:28 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]

As kind of a counterpoint, I have tons of "secret family recipes," which are basically just how my family cooks.

Having a bunch of super-simple techniques was kind of how my family got dinner on the table every night when both my parents worked, and I think that "how to cook a food until it's edible" is the kind of useful stuff that a lot of people don't get the chance to learn - home ec (at least in my day; do kids even have that anymore?) was more about "here is how to make a chocolate cake" and wasn't very useful.

Most of the meals I make are "technique" meals rather than recipes - sauteed vegetables with salt, pepper, hot sauce and some kind of fat to finish, Things Under The Broiler, Things That You Mash Up And Cook On The Griddle, Grains Cooked In Broth With Onion, etc.
posted by Frowner at 1:38 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

MetaFilter: that's how we end up with banana dick salad.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 1:43 PM on February 28 [6 favorites]

I'm pretty sure that the mefi-favourite Scots Tablet recipe likely came from a Nestlé "Swiss Milk" card from the 1930s. Before the development of condensed milk, tablet was made with only fresh cream and sugar, and was slow and difficult to make.
posted by scruss at 1:47 PM on February 28

That SPAM, green pepper, and Mac'n'Cheese dish is gonna be cooked tonight at the snwod household.

from the early 1970s to your dinner table!
posted by thelonius at 2:01 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

My Minnesotan grandmother was the ultimate stereotype of bland Minnesotan cooking. The grandkids all grew up eating "chocolate pie" on Thanksgiving, which was a Jiffy pie crust with Jello chocolate pudding and Cool Whip. She made something called "cranberry fluff", also, which is the ultimate Thanksgiving food for my family. I've seen similar recipes online but nothing exactly like what she made. I'd love to know where she got the recipe, because I bet it was some 1950's "things to do with marshmallows" pamphlet.
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:02 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I got over my squash/pumpkin issues when I learned Australians use "pumpkin" as generic for all squash, whereas I believe North America is unique in affixing the word to only the very specific cultivar associated with modern Halloween.

It's really not the fake-food gotcha people carry on about. Use whichever type of hearty squash you like best.
posted by gilrain at 3:18 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]

Oh nakedmolerats, my people landed in California in the 50's by way of Kansas, and that chocolate pie is an important fixture in our Thanksgiving tradition.
posted by vignettist at 3:31 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who insisted that the pimento cheese ball was her great-aunt's secret family recipe. My maternal grandmother was a ferocious Russyn from the Carpathian mountains and everything she made had sauerkraut in it. While it's possible that her mackerel casserole with pickles, sauerkraut, parsley, capers and tomato sauce (topped with golden-baked breadcrumbs) came from the side of a fish tin, that's OK by me.
posted by acrasis at 3:52 PM on February 28

While I'm an inveterate reader and amasser of old cookbooks and also have a particular interest in the history of branded recipes, this is why I don't collect community cookbooks younger than about the 1930s or so. They tend to be ad nauseam repetitions of branded recipes, without attribution. I'd rather just collect the branded cookbooks to begin with.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:59 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I am 100% not shocked to hear this at all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:06 PM on February 28

Fundraiser cookbooks for ethnic churches often have 5-6 variations of the same recipe. Parishioners from different districts follow the cooking patterns they learned growing up, and they often have different seasonings.

An old Southern Story, the grande dame generously shared her "special" recipe but she always left out one ingredient, so nobody could duplicate her results.
posted by ohshenandoah at 4:13 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

Even the Toll House cookie recipe left out the step where you’re supposed to chill the dough in the fridge for 24 hours.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:25 PM on February 28 [5 favorites]

I think it makes sense that so many baking recipes would turn out to have come from other places, because it's really easy to mess up if you improvise when baking. Less so when it comes to stews and things, which are very forgiving (I believe I have previously expressed my love and appreciation for stew on this site).
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 4:33 PM on February 28

The thing with cooking is that it's knack, like having a green thumb or being a great poker player. On the one hand, anyone who is reasonably careful, has the proper materials and can afford to spend the time can be an adequate cook or play adequate poker.

I have to say that I agree with this. For some reason my family also has a knack for cooking. I know that I can definitely be a little slapdash with my measurements and additives, and yet 90% of the time my dishes come out very well. Sure, I fluff my flour and level it, and I don’t randomly substitute ingredients (e.g. “Hmm, I’m out of sour cream but I do have some Miracle Whip”). But I also know people who are super precise about it—weighing their measurements, calibrating their ovens, following recipes as precisely as possible—and yet they always have meh results, especially with baking. Why? I have no idea. If anything, their precision should consistently create superior results over my “good enough for government work” approach, but it doesn’t.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:50 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

My great-grandma owned a BnB in North Wales, and family legend has it that she would bake two scones every afternoon for my great-grandpa (which is lovely, but also, bloody hell patriachy). So I had always assumed that my mum's "make 12 dozen scones in two hours for the fundraising afternoon tea" sconeathons used her recipe.

Nope, recipe was in the food processor manual.
posted by kjs4 at 4:52 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

My recipes go in phases:

Phase 1: Follow the recipe like it was handed down from on high. When it inevitably doesn't live up to expectations type "why did my X do Y" into Google and read whatever I can. 20 goto 10 until the problems get sorted out.

Phase 2: Try adjusting the flavors a bit a little more vanilla, play with the salt a bit, switch out the topping for a chocolate ganache, or a Raspberry Coulis or brown sugar caramel or something. Does it need the booze?

Phase 3: Try mixing recipes. "Hey, here's a sous vide cheesecake recipe, what if I used this french vanilla cheesecake batter at that temperature water bath, with this caramel sauce mixed in?" (A: I wind up making 5 dozen for a relative's wedding. Didn't need to get her another gift though).

I couldn't call the recipes I make regularly mine, because they're usually frankensteined together out of a few other sources (almost inevitably one of them being Kenji-Lopez Alt) at the same time I still feel a certain degree of ownership. In the same way that there may be five million of a particular Ikea couch and 30 identical units in your apartment, but you've combined them into something personal.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:07 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

I'm the only one of my friends who grew up with the 1969 version of the red cover Betty Crocker Cookbook, the one with the cover that looked like a pie with different photos of food on it (and from the Doubleday Book Club, no less). For some reason, they think I'm a great cook and baker, and always want to know the recipe. ::wink!::

It's all a sort of muscle memory now, to be honest. I used that book a lot between ages 7 and 17. I might have to eBay that puppy.
posted by droplet at 6:24 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]

My sister in her teens took one of these and transcribed pages and pages of recipes. My Mom still uses it for the Gob and Haystack recipes.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:46 PM on February 28

I was just going to come to the defense of from the field pumpkin for pie, but then I realized that A) I always use squash and B) I end up using 1/2 c. or more extra squash in my pies. So that is probably why they taste so good.

However if you are baking squash muffins (which I do often, substituting squash in place of banana in recipes) the texture of the muffins is all wrong. Something about the canned stuff loses body.

My mother's most famous baking recipes come from "the old Betty Crocker" (an updated version of the original published maybe 10 years later) or "the New Betty Crocker" (30 year old cookbook which can be spotted because its spine is duct-taped together).
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:24 PM on February 28

My mother always made a white pudding for us when we were sick. She said grandma had always made "Boo-Ye" for her sick kids. It was very comforting on a sick stomach. When I was older I asked mom if she still had grandma's recipe and she told me to buy a box of Argo Corn Starch. The recipe is on the back of the box. A very simple Blanc Mange made with endless stirring.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:49 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Lyn Never: "The reason the pumpkin pie recipe from the back of the Libby can is so good is that someone working for Libby collected up all the known variations of pumpkin pie (and probably all related pies - sweet potato etc), boiled it down to common denominators, uncomplicated some of the steps/ingredients to use commonly-available shortcuts (shortening or margarine instead of rendering lard, canned evaporated milk instead of reducing your own or obtaining cream, maybe self-raising flour or corn syrup or similar), and included their employer's other brand name products as applicable.

The recipes are pretty good because the product was pretty good to start with, and food manufacturing companies were in many cases repackaging a good thing."

Absolutely. Though I think this may apply more to older company recipes/cookbooks. These days a lot of company published recipes seem to be shallow excuses to cram as many of their products as possible into one recipe with little regard for the quality of the finished foodstuff (Kraft Foods I'm looking at you).

There's a fascinating interview with food historian Elizabeth Driver discussing the history of cookbooks where she talks about (among other things) the Five Roses (flour company) Cookbook, in publication since 1913. Driver says "The book was popular because the recipes were truly useful; they had been submitted by housewives to a recipe contest run by the flour company." The 1915 edition included a claim that "nearly 950,000 copies are in daily use in Canadian kitchens-practically one copy for every second Canadian home."

shapes that haunt the dusk: "There's an interesting trend with all these recipes, which is that a lot of them, regardless of origin, still reflect cultural or ethnic ties in the family. Like, my family never made potato salad because my family's heritage leaned more towards stuff like beans and chowder (or on my dad's side of the family, my great uncle's famous omelettes). Other people mention matzah balls and Greek food, or fudge, or whatnot. Curation matters! The recipes your family members chose to cook say something about them, even if they didn't come up with the exact formulas on their own."

This. My Mom has always been quite open about most of her recipes being from the backs of packages and company cookbooks (The Five Roses Cookbook, The Purity Cookbook), classic or now-classic cookbooks (The Joy of Cooking, The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, The Moosewood Cookbook, Food That Really Schmecks, Muffin Mania), and community cookbooks. She gave me a copy of each of them when I moved out on my own.

What makes something a family recipe to me is that they are the recipes that have been the backdrop of our lives and that my family loves: the pork & mushroom pasta dish that I requested whenever Mom let me pick what would be for dinner, the beet-based Maritimer's Chocolate Beet Cake that has been my birthday cake for my entire life, the ridiculous gumdrop loaf cake that my parents both adore, the Sweet Marie bar recipe that is our funeral potluck dish, the (Betty Crocker) Waikiki Meatball recipe I made as a kid the first time I was allowed to cook dinner by myself and that I made the first time my boyfriend's parents came to dinner at our first apartment.

That said, there is one recipe that has been in my family for at least six generations: an applesauce cake. I called my Mother to ask about it after reading this article, and we got in an interesting discussion about how the way our family cooks and eats has changed drastically in the course of a single generation. When my Mother was a child my Grandmother still did all her cooking with a wood-stove and that family applesauce cake is made without eggs because in the old days (before barns on family farms had electric lights) the hens stopped laying in winter.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:48 PM on February 28 [10 favorites]

I'm sure many of my Grandma's recipes are ones she took with her when she came here from Norway. The lefse recipe definitely, pretty sure the meatballs (even if my mom always shares that time a she was told they tasted exactly like some other family's Chinese meatballs), and probably the spritz cookies (though the actual written portion is simple enough I'm sure many boxes and cookbooks have basically the same thing).

If she brought a karamellpudding recipe with her when she emigrated, it is lost to time, because she long since switched to a ready-mix box of flan acquired from the Mexican foods section of Walmart. Ideally the one with the pre-made caramel sauce.
posted by ckape at 10:52 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]

Ah, but can you explain which label originated the Come Fuck Me Penne à la Vodka?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:39 AM on March 1 [4 favorites]

Imagine my surprise when I left for college and discovered that pancakes didn't normally come blended with cups of leftover white rice.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:42 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

she sold Nestle the rights to print the recipe (with the Toll House name) in return for a lifetime supply of chocolate.
This is the most mind-blowing thing I've seen all week. A lifetime supply of chocolate?!

How does somebody even negotiate that? Could she just ask Nestle for any quantity of chocolate that she wanted at any time? (Asking for a friend.)
posted by schmod at 7:18 AM on March 1 [4 favorites]

While not recipe related this reminded me of my mom's love for a ceramic pitcher that her great grandmother brought over from Germany in the late 1800's. It is the only possession she inherited and holds dear to her. I did a reverse image search on google and apparently is was made in Indiana, USA, in the mid 20th century. I dare not tell her its origins nor do I tell her my thoughts on that same great grandmother's claim that her line is from German royalty.
posted by waving at 7:31 AM on March 1 [6 favorites]

Actually this whole thread kind of makes me sad because I've realized that we don't have any special recipes or even dishes that have been handed down or are traditional in our family, except for that strawberry-pretzel salad (the Paula Deen recipe I linked above), and that's probably only traditional because I demand that someone make it every holiday -- or I just make it myself because I love it so much. My extended family stinks.

A few years ago my grandma decided that she wanted to clean out her bookshelves, so she gave me all of her cookbooks. Most were of the 1970's Family Circle Collection variety, but there were a couple gems, including an earlier version of the "tribal favorites" booklet my mom bought a few years back and a cookbook that she got in 1941 as a wedding gift from her mother. But I don't think she ever cooked from it, as it's clean and has no notes written in it. My mom's BH&G cookbook that SHE got when she was married is full of notes, stapled in recipes, and it's full of flour and batter splotches and THAT's the cookbook I'll treasure when it becomes mine (especially since it's got her pie crust recipe in it).

Otherwise I have celebrity cookbooks that have been gifted to me (several Silver Palate cookbooks, a Mario Batali cookbook that I had to turn around in the shelf, a bunch of Jeff Smith cookbook that are turned around in the shelf) and the Cake Bible, which at one point I think I had read more than the real Bible. I don't really cook from cookbooks. And once I learned the ratio method I stopped baking from cookbooks as well. I do peruse them for ideas though, since I lack creativity. And they look nice on the shelf?
posted by elsietheeel at 7:52 AM on March 1 [1 favorite]

The family recipe that as far as I know is unique to our family is something we call Hard Times Cake.

It's a fairly different cake (or at least one that I haven't encountered elsewhere) and tradition has it that the unusual recipe is due to the unavailability or expense of certain ingredients during the depression. Ironically it's much more expensive to make now than a regular cake is -- several pounds of raisins for sweetening cost a lot more than the refined sugar they were meant to replace.

Someday I'd love to have a talk with a historian who could tell us whether the substitutions really would have made economic sense during the depression, when this cake is said to date from.

posted by Nerd of the North at 8:50 AM on March 1 [2 favorites]

My mother doesn't really cook much, so the running joke in our family was that she didn't teach me how to make our secret family recipes, she taught me how to order them.

But the beau's family is far more traditional in that respect, so it was a wonder and a befuddlement to me when I realized that the corn casserole that absolutely must show up on the table every Thanksgiving, lest there be riots, can easily be found on the back of a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix.

I made it and served it on one random Tuesday, because it reminded me of a corn torte recipe I had a passing familiarity with thanks to the Mexican side of my family. Minds were blown.
posted by PearlRose at 8:50 AM on March 1 [4 favorites]

I have some fun special-effect recipes that always wow the family, but definitely come from recipe books I've found around the place. The one that's always a winner is the beer pizza dough. It's just four cups (I found it in a US cookbook) flour, a spoon of baking powder, half a spoon of salt, and a bottle of lager. It only takes like 20m at 190°C to make a nice fluffy bread, and all the hard work was done at the brewery so it only needs a little manipulation rather than hard kneading!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:24 AM on March 2

From my side of the family, the two things that must be at every major holiday are apple pie and pumpkin pie. There were years where we literally made a dozen or more apple pies at Christmas so we could give them to relatives. The recipes? They came from a (very old, extremely battered) Betty Crocker cookbook (though for the pumpkin pie it was just known from memory that in this house we do not put clove in the pie regardless of what the book says).

In my opinion the main thing that made these memorable (besides being from family) is that my dad really knows how to make a crust properly and in the case of apple pie we always left the apple + sugar + spice mixture to macerate for 45m or more to really get juicy and delicious before filling the pies. So, the recipes were from a book, but some technique came from practice.

I later added pecan pie to this (thanks, Karo bottle -- though I literally double or more the amount of pecans in the pie, and later started making it with Lyle's Golden Syrup instead).

Also, one thing that probably was specific to us (and very much a "waste not want not" kinda thing) is, we always make a thing called "cloud cookies". They are literally just the extra dough from the pie crusts (after trimming the edges) rolled out into whatever shape they'll hold (thus "cloud" -- very amorphous blob-y), sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and thrown in the oven with the pies. A tasty treat while you're waiting for the pie to cool down!
posted by tocts at 6:11 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]

I never called them cloud cookies (pie crust cookies), but they are better than some pies are. I might have been known to make extra crust for them.
posted by jeather at 10:20 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]

I'm always asked to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, so I've had a lot of practice. I have once gotten a very fresh very good sugar pumpkin that was better than the canned pumpkin. I have several times gotten local pumpkins that were more or less indistinguishable from the canned pumpkin. Otherwise the differences between doing the cooking down myself or using a can are (1) I get to bake pumpkin seeds afterwards, which are super tasty; (2) I have leftover pulp which is (2a) nice if I happen to want and have time to make pumpkin soup and (2b) an inconvenient extra ingredient that needs to be used or I feel guilty for the waste; (3) I have to set aside extra time which is (3a) nice if I have the time to set aside and it's chilly enough to enjoy the oven house-warming effect or (3b) stressful if I don't have the time or it's unseasonably warm. In my case my bragging rights come from the spicing anyway, so there's no benefit or shame effect of cooking or using a can. I don't really see either method being wrong, just a matter of whether you can get a good local squash, how much time you have, and whether the extra effort feels fancy or just fiddly to the person doing the work.

When I was growing up, we did the little extra pie crust treats, too, though we put either jam or butter and cinnamon sugar, and then rolled them before putting them into the oven, so they were a little closer to a jelly roll or rugelach than a cookie.
posted by Karmakaze at 9:05 AM on March 5

> banana dick salad
If my Mom were still living, I would send that recipe to her immediately; she loved innuendo; the less subtle the better.
posted by theora55 at 5:26 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]

I was a little disappointed when I found out my mom's absolutely delicious cake frosting -the taste of all of my childhood birthdays and family events like christenings and wedding showers- was pretty much just Crisco, vanilla extract, and a boatload of powdered sugar.

Turns out I just like the taste of sugar. [shrug]

My family has recipes that are probably sort of original, but they're also...pretty bad. I come from a long line of Polish-Germans and you'd think I'd have a rich catalog of recipes for pierogi, strudel, potato pancakes, sauerkraut, pfefferneusse, etc. but my ancestors were poor as dirt, barely literate, and in a hurry to leave the Old Country behind, so the family recipes start circa 1960 and are for...spaghetti sauce, chili, fried rice, and other foods that Polish Germans probably shouldn't be considered experts on. My grandparents were afraid of spices and also loved convenience foods (growing up poor during the Depression and WW2 will do that to you) so recipes like the one for spaghetti sauce involves a jar of Prego; chili involves bell peppers and a dusting of chili powder. I've abandoned most of them for better recipes I find online.

Grandma did make a mean CrockPot full of cocktail weenies and BBQ sauce for your holiday gatherings, though.
posted by castlebravo at 2:59 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]

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