How a Recipe Becomes an Urban Legend
Why do some recipes become as famous as Oprah or Brad Pitt or hang around a good long time and are as recognizable to anyone as Pride and Prejudice, having either immediate or lasting brand? How is that even possible for something as basic as food which is not an actor or a classic novel but something you need to eat to survive? But it’s true: there are recipes that are simply show-stopping, iconic, urban legends that explode from their kitchens of origin to unheralded fame and (sometimes) fortune. Examples? Think of Caesar Salad, Cronuts, Buffalo Wings, Saratoga Potato Chips, Chicago Deep Dish Pizza and Coca Cola. Did I mention Crepes Suzettes, Tarte Tatin and Cobb Salad (all being served today albeit they are almost a century old, each one).
And just to be clear, if you think all recipes are created equal, and a cookie is just a cookie, don’t even go there because if that was true, people wouldn’t be trying to make a better Tollhouse Cookie for over eighty years (eighty years!) nor would chocolate chip cookie consumption be over 7 Billion cookies a year. Thank you Ruth Graves Wakefield.
Forget cookbooks because on the Internet, recipes are a dime a dozen. In fact, usually they’re free. And yet, whereas it looks like there’s millions of recipes out there, it’s usually the same single recipe, reconfigured, on hundreds of food blogs and repository sites. In fact, the hotter the recipe search (Monkey Bread, Overnight Mason Jar Oatmeal, Homemade Vanilla), the more likely you’ll find the same, exact version of one single thing. Most recipe roads lead to Rome except a few those culinary heritages just stands out, at least in the beginning of their own rise to fame.
I am a cookbook author and in my own case, many of my own published recipes lead back to me and I have evidence of some of my own creations breaking the mold into mainstream parlance (at least in the kitchen). I can Google certain recipes of mine and blanch at the search results. Something, I notice, is afoot. How so? (And I say this as a firmly planted mid-list cookbook author), I believe my recipes are special and unique enough that people seem to notice and download by the droves. How do I know that? Well, I have a food website for 21 years and I can check the downloads and clicks on any recipe in my 2500 original (not only all mine, all tested) recipes in the Betterbaking.com archives. Some 33,000 have downloaded my Montreal Bagel recipe alone (we won’t even go into Lawsuit Muffins, Cherry Garcia Cookies, Pumpkin Eruption Cheesecake or Bottle and Sell It Pizza Sauce). As I say, these are my stats — check them yourself on Google.
Tons of my recipes get ‘borrowed’ and I see citing of them on some of the most illustrious blogs, celebrity food sites and they often can be found residing in other people’s cookbooks of others. This is partly because there’s a notion that recipes are public domain and rarely retain authorship. For that I also blame the U.S. Copyright Law but that’s another feature. Suffice to say the borrowing is the bane of any recipe creator because there is no copyright law for recipes. But it also speaks to the truth of my recipes: clearly some of them are such pearls they get passed around, made, spread and so it goes. And what was a quiet invention in my test kitchen slowly becomes a (a recognizable) thing.
Why are my recipes so special? I’m not exactly sure but I think I’m a recipe whisperer. I have developed a skill that is part instinct, part training and part experiential. It has enabled me to create recipes a majority of people seem to want to make. It’s like being a clothes buyer perhaps — I have my rolling pin on the pulse of collective taste.
(Behold left: Matzoh Buttercrunch or Matzoh Crack — yes, I invented it in 1985)
I do take incredible care to craft my recipes so people can (easily) make them because what’s the point of recipes that only work for me? How do I do this? Am I a trained chef? Yes, I am. Marketing natural? Perhaps. Taste maker? It seems so or maybe I’m just lucky but I sort of know where people live, food-wise. I can guess their appetites, their collective culinary skill and food sensibility and I hone in. At the base of this is a compulsion to share and give something to people –to connect — even though this is my vocation.
Where did it start? Betty Crocker Sets or Bake Like an Egyptian…..
I’ve been making mud pies since I’m seven. At eight, I graduated to a Betty Crocker cake baking set and once the oven broke (as they invariably did in the 60’s and/or I realized even wee cakes don’t bake at 20 watts) I took to baking out in the sun in my backyard, setting up mini layer pans on a rock in the rose garden. Yes, you read that right, I baked outside in the sun. Someone, I took the part about the matzoh-baking Jews in the Passover Exodus to hear and my take-away was you could bake outdoors. The fact is not only is a balmy Montreal summer sun inadequate to out-door bake chocolate layer cake but the neighbourhood boys knocked my batter-in-pans-on-the-lawn set up. Those bullies are now accountants and optometrists but I remember them when.
By eleven years old I got the keys to the family oven which is to say, in our house of child neglect I used the oven, alone and unattended and just started baking for real. I made salty gingerbread and salty frostings, salty cookies and salty pretzels (which is really saying something since they’re supposed to be salty) simply because I couldn’t even figure out what recipe fractions meant. Half a teaspoon on occasion, was half a cup. Once in awhile, my mother would discover a mess of ingredients missing (or just a mess) and have a taste of my failures and chase me all through the house. I came back the very next day.
By fourteen years old, I figured it out. I read more carefully, improved my math and was respectful of recipes. I learned with the best: Julia, James and Jacques. Cooking was easy (enough) but baking was the holy grail of culinary artistry. I could ad-lib with cooking: more wine, less pepper, more butter, less garlic but I wouldn’t dare futz around with baking. How on earth does one fiddle with a) perfection and b) how would I ever discover how to change things in baking or otherwise invent or create? Well, time, experimentation, my own cake company, working for bakeries and restaurants, a pastry chef diploma from a prestigious hotel school and trial and error took care of that. One day, I realized I could not only fix other recipes or improve them but that I could even invent my own (which is easy enough to say about cooking but I figured out how to do this in baking). I could actually make a new wheel (or bread, biscuit or better cupcake). Making classics better (or easier), updating traditions, sharpening vintage recipes or launching fantastic, full culinary experiential recipes became my jam (ask anyone who’s made my New Way Potato Latkes). It became part of my domain a food feature writer, food consultant, cookbook author and website host, second nature to reinvent baking.
I noticed recipes in cookbooks that simply didn’t make sense. For instance, there’s no reason to mix baking soda with buttermilk before using it (that is painfully antiquated advice, circa 1860) nor any reason to sift flour before using it (flour used to be compacted and moth laden — that’s not the case). There is a reason however, to use real butter, natural vanilla, unbleached flour and fresh cinnamon. Once I saw the shaky DNA of classic recipes I began to overhaul them and make definitive, streamlined versions of them. Too many baking recipes are stuck in the past with recipe writers repeating the same inherent errors because few people look closely to see the problem. Don’t believe me? Try banana bread made with 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda. That’s crazy too-much soda and it tastes awful! Don’t make those recipes and accept that weird soapy, chemical taste. It’s just wrong!
With baking recipes in particular, you want to preserve their roots and integrity whilst bringing them forward (this is 2018 after all) and making them duplicable for average folk. Plus we have things like instant yeast, consistent baking powder (no more potash) and pasteurized eggs.
Still on my journey, I took my recipe deconstruction one step further. I found ways to create totally new things or contextualize recipes in a way that made them memorable. I wrote about my new recipes in lavish terms (as only a baker who’s also a writer could do), named them striking, evocative titles, and offered riveting headnotes under the recipe titles. I was smitten by baking myself and the magic of recipes and what they promise. In turn that (and this seems to be the basis of every food novel I’ve ever read from Like Water For Chocolate and Mistress of Spices) to have allowed me to tap into a craving or need people have that my recipes seem to satisfy. I seem to know what they want. I also polish recipes like sanding a piece of driftwood until they’re smooth inside and out and bear a high performance code that makes alchemy of flour and sugar. The ingredients have to be pantry available, the listing of the ingredients has to be as clear as a bell and the recipe directions have to stand tall, clear and do-able and have a logic to them. To me, a recipe is a symphony, a poem a work of art — I take it seriously.
Over the years, I got better at developing, writing and documenting recipes (this is where you actually write up what you do in the kitchen without missing anything) as seamlessly as Haiku: short, sweet and accessible so anyone can look at one of my recipes and say: Hey, I can do that!
I’ve found that anything could become a recipe for me — a heart break, a visit to a Friendly’s in Virginia, my sons’ snacky yearnings as toddlers or a wish to make Pizza Hut Twisty Bread at home and get everyone else doing it too. When it comes to baking, I am not catholic in my tastes and so it could be history, art, film — if there is a faint tether of food I can find in it and connect it — I can and do because food is not just sustenance; it’s a form of creative expression like any art is. This is what makes food more than food. It also pleases my readers which are honestly, more than my creative hubris, the whole point of what I do (that and feeding family and friends)
Some Iconic Recipes
Lawsuit Muffins was a muffin I invented in the 80’s. Originally called Rhubarb (or Apple or Blueberry) Buttermilk Streusel Muffins, I first sold these to a café that went wild for them. I then worked for this care and one day, having made muffin batter all day long, I realized this small café had sold over 35 dozen buttermilk muffins. My recipe was a hit! Then I was (abruptly) fired; my boss kept my recipes and a couple of the cocaine addicts in the sandwich kitchen butchered the baking equipment one night in a spree so had I not been fired, it would have been hard to bake more muffins anyway. I tried to sue and that (shocker) was a fruitless mission. Instead, I never sold the recipe (aka formulae) away after that but gave away (and wrote about them) for years and called them (aptly) Lawsuit Muffins.
What was so great about these muffins? They are simply stupendous: crusty sweet streusel on top, golden, brown-sugar kissed inner crumb and just the right amount of country buttermilk and handfuls of orchard-fresh apple chunks. See what I mean? You have to sell it. Then you have to back it up with a recipe that anyone, without skill and blindfolded, could make. At my website Lawsuit Muffins has been downloaded thousands of times. It’s also in my second cookbook. It’s also the first muffin I bring over as a gift and it is still, after decades, still good enough to upstage my Oreo Cheesecake (yes, I invented that too and I was first with that because Nabisco sent me a cease and desist letter and I live in Canada which is to say, they went to some trouble to find me).
When I invented New Wave Latkes the angels wept. (Don’t even ask; just trust me). When I launched my Moist and Majestic New Year’s Honey Cakemy motives were more selfish. I’ve never been a fan of honey cake, the traditional Rosh Hashanah spice cake that is so indelibly a Jewish holiday favorite.
So I set out to make a honey cake that was exceptionally moist, sweet, fragrant, flavorful, and statuesque and in a word: awesome. I wanted to convince honey cake haters (like me) that this was as cake they could embrace. I also wanted to bake the highest cake possible that didn’t topple over (hence ‘the majestic’ in its nomenclature). I did it. This cake breaks the mold and it’s a legend. No on worries more than me about the bee’s plight these days and it’s partly due to this honey cake that relies on it. Doubt this is better than any honey cake you’ve ever had? Try it. If I’m wrong and you can do better — call me out.
Then of course was Notting Hill Brownies, a deeply dark, delicious fudge brownie inspired by a scene in the rom com, Notting Hill.
When I invented Matzoh Buttercrunch, aka Matzoh Crack (yes that was me) it was because I was celebrating my first born son’s first Passover. He was fussy and I thought: what can I make that is Passover appropriate that this kid will eat? At the time I’d been making something similar with soda crackers and the matzoh swap was genius. Maybe it was my new mother’s hormones but it was genius and can be found all over the Internet (with variations but you can still see it’s my original recipe) and even Bloomingdales has sold it. And for the record, my Matzoh Buttercrunch was presented to the Smithsonian as an example of recipes that become urban legends.
So what makes a recipe become part of history? What makes anything viral or iconic? How can a simple recipe (Tollhouse, Cronuts, Coca Cola, and Caesar Salad et al) transcend its humble roots as simple ‘food’? It’s all the things I do and I guess, it’s also (and this is true for anything that goes ‘viral’ and makes it to Webster’s dictionary) I don’t know. I only know how to reach people by their appetites and whims. I know how to document it in a format (a recipe which is one of the most impressive bits of coding to ever coming about aside from language itself) that enables them to replicate the same magic. I find this not only magical, I find it is art. It’s certainly intellectual expression. And like the best of intellectual expression, while it might not make one reflect a great recipe seems to feed people well and make them happy.