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February 2, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Cookie recipes and blows against empire

by BOB DORAN


A recipe showed up in my e-mail box this morning. It came from a local chef, but it was not one of hers. Instead she sent what purported to be "the Neiman Marcus cookie" recipe. The forwarded e-mail containing the recipe itself was preceded by an interjection: "I love it when the little guy strikes back!" followed by an introduction describing the upscale Neiman Marcus as "a very expensive store" and, shouting in all caps: "THIS IS A TRUE STORY!"

The tale that followed reminded me of something I encountered frequently in my years as a chef: Pleased customers would ask for a recipe so they could try to recreate some dish at home. I always said yes. In some cases I even kept copies of popular recipes on hand; sometimes, as with Chuck's crab-cake recipe (reproduced here a couple of weeks ago), because the recipe was for some mass quantity that no one would make at home. Another reason was to avoid exposing diners to the food-encrusted nature of restaurant recipe collections. (Cooks try to preserve the illusion that everything is immaculately spotless behind the door to the kitchen.)

The supposedly true story of the N.M. cookie recipe has a woman named Diane and her daughter asking for the recipe for the delicious chocolate chip cookie they'd enjoyed in the in-store café at a Dallas N.M. The waitress tells them it's available, but they have to buy it -- for "only two-fifty." The woman tells her to add it to her tab, only to learn, once she receives her credit card statement, that the recipe was $250, not $2.50. She complains, but ultimately must pay. Her revenge: Share the recipe with everyone she knows and have them do the same. She fumes, "I paid $250 for this, and I don't want Neiman Marcus to EVER make another penny off of this recipe!" The recipe follows, along with a command to mail it to everyone in your address book, "and ask them to pass it on." The unstated subtext suggests that upscale department stores are greedy and should be taken down a notch.

It turns out this "TRUE STORY" is not true at all. I recognized it because I'd heard the tale before and knew it as one of many urban legends e-mails floating around the Net. If you're in the address book of even one gullible e-mail contact you've probably received a message asking you to help "Save Big Bird!" or warning of some viral plague that's about to destroy the World Wide Web as we know it, or at least your hard drive. While it's easy enough to simply hit delete when something like the cookie recipe shows up in my e-mail, often from an otherwise thoughtful friend, I usually take the time to respond, just so the sender will know that, while their heart may be in the right place, what they're doing is contributing to the rising tide of useless spam.

As they put it at Snopes.com, an excellent source for information on bogus claims, "Every day we're bombarded with e-mail of dubious origin and even more dubious veracity: Messages that plead with us to find a missing kid or help a sick child, sign a petition to right some terrible injustice, take a stand on an important piece of pending legislation, forward a message to claim free merchandise or take heed of the latest computer virus. The messages that aren't outright hoaxes are often full of misinformation, and even the ones that have some truth to them are usually out-of-date by the time we receive them."

A Google search for "Neiman Marcus cookie recipe" turns up a Snopes page on same, but also the official Neiman Marcus website, where there's a whole page dedicated to the myth about their "signature chocolate chip cookie." N.M. wants you to know it's "a modern folk tale, its origins unknown, its believability enhanced simply by the frequency with which it is repeated... If you haven't heard the story, we won't perpetuate it. If you have, the recipe [supplied] should serve to refute it. Copy it, print it out, pass it along to friends and family. It's a terrific recipe. And it's absolutely free."

Snopes founder Barbara Mikkelson traces the legend back to a similar story found in a cookbook published in 1948 for "$25 Fudge Cake." Here the account concerns a request for a recipe from the chef of some railroad dining car. As noted in the cookbook, it was supplied, "together with a bill for $25, which her attorney said she had to pay. She then gave the recipe to all her friends, hoping they would get some pleasure from it."

The myth pops up again in the '60s, re: a "Red Velvet Cake" served at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. It then mutates into a yarn about a recipe for Mrs. Fields' cookies. While it's impossible to be sure about how such myths develop, Mikkelson posits that there may have been an interim version with Marshall Fields department store replacing Mrs. Fields, transmuted through retelling, as in the child's game, "Telephone," into Neiman Marcus.

While the store does not mention it, she points out that, ironically, "Until quite recently there was no such thing as a `Neiman Marcus cookie.' They developed a chocolate chip cookie in response to the rumor."

If you were hoping to come away from this with a cookie recipe, I'll direct you to the Neiman Marcus cookie page: (www.neimanmarcus.com/store/service/nm_cookie_recipe.jhtml).

If you're interested in the urban legend cookie recipe, which, by the way, is completely different from the N.M. version, I will gladly send it to you via e-mail (thehum@northcoastjournal.com), but only if you swear that you will not forward it to anyone else. And I admonish you: Resist the forwarding temptation. The few clicks of a mouse merely spread a self-replicating virus. Don't do it.

Above: This is not a Neiman Marcus cookie. It's one from Ramone's. Cookie eaten by Bob Doran.


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