In the late 90s, there was a popular chain email purportedly sharing the supposed "Neiman Marcus cookie recipe." According to the text of the email, this signature recipe cost some poor woman—ostensibly a Karen—$250. As the lore goes, after asking a waitress at a Neiman Marcus cafe if she could buy the recipe for a particularly delicious chocolate chip cookie, the woman was told it would cost "two fifty," which she interpreted as $2.50; the real cost came to light when a bill came for ten times that much. Full of spite and now holding the brand's signature recipe, she then decided to send it out to cookie lovers everywhere.
Like many other chain letters before and after it, this story was just an internet legend. Neiman Marcus didn't have a highly coveted cookie recipe at the time, as the New York Times reported in 1997, but it did release its own cookie recipe that year—publicly and for free—in an attempt to dispel the story. According to Snopes, this story of an expensive recipe shared by a wronged person dates back to 1948, when it was told about a mythical $25 fudge cake recipe; then in the 60s, with the Waldorf-Astoria's red velvet cake; and most recently, in the 00s, with an alleged cookie recipe from South Africa's Woolworths. The foundation for this endless tale is the idea of a brand protecting its highly coveted secret recipe.
Today, a recipe for "Neiman Marcus cookies" lives on through the New York Times and various blogs, and as Eater recently wrote, the recipe chain email is also having a comeback as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, since more people are staying home and cooking. Our recent situation, however, has had the reverse effect on the idea of the secret recipe: Over the past few weeks, many brands have made their actual once-secret recipes public in response to the pandemic.
Just this month, Pret A Manger revealed its chocolate chip cookie recipe; McDonald's shared the long-imitated sausage-and-egg McMuffin recipe, and with its parks currently closed, Disney published the recipe for its churros for a "little taste of Disney magic" at home. Wagamama launched a cooking channel to share its signature katsu curry recipe. DoubleTree by Hilton shared its chocolate chip recipe "for the first time ever." Oregon's Bend Soup Company is posting one recipe on Facebook per week. And though not exactly a secret recipe, Waffle House announced last week that it was finally selling bags of its signature waffle mix (sadly, it has already sold out).
It's a PR move, no doubt, meant to gain favor for food and hospitality businesses that are struggling amid COVID-19-related closures. Unlike the spiteful sharing of the Neiman Marcus cookie chain emails, though, this move seems well-intentioned, even to those of us who don't really want to give The Brands much credit. The idea behind these "secret recipe" unveilings is that people crave comfort, and our favorite foods from familiar establishments—ones that are now either closed or out of our reach—can provide that. Also, with everyone cooking and baking more, recipes are certainly in greater demand than usual at the moment. "We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” DoubleTree by Hilton senior vice president Shawn McAteer said in a statement accompanying its cookie recipe. "A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything, but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness."
While it makes sense for brands and companies to keep the secrets to their success well-guarded, it seems unlikely that this transparency will hurt them in the long run. As frequent restaurant-goers realize as the weeks of isolation go on, the experience of eating out is as much a part of the appeal of dining on location as the food itself: a churro made at home will never beat the experience of eating a churro after a long day at Disneyland, and a waffle made with Waffle House mix in your own kitchen still won't feel as satisfying as one eaten in the middle of the night at a cozy diner.
As secret recipes go public, we can imitate those experiences for now—but the originals will always have a place in our hearts. It might just be a while until we have the real deal again.