Urban legends. Or urban myths. I’m sure you’ve heard a few–and possibly helped perpetuate some of the myths by passing them on to others).
Columnist Jack Smith (who authored quite a few books about life in Los Angeles) once wrote in the Los Angeles Times magazine (5-6-90) that the Urban Myth or fable is like the mythical dragon that can’t be killed. “Cut off its head,” wrote Smith, “It grows another.” (Urban legends were a favorite topic for Smith, who wrote more articles about them over the years)
One that made the rounds where I worked some years ago (and was written about in Jack Smith’s article) had to do with spiders. According to the story, this couple bought a cactus at a nursery and a few days later, noticed it was moving. They called the nursery and questioned them about it. The nursery man told them to call 911 and get out of the house immediately! So, the people called the police who sent out a bomb squad and they in turn covered the cactus with a big tarp and put it into the comb container. The reason for all this concern was that, (so the story goes) tarantulas breed inside this type of cactus which is supposed to blow apart with tarantulas flying everywhere. I think, in the version that circulated around my office the spiders had taken up residence in strawberry plants.
The best urban legends, according to Jack Smith (no relation) are those that MIGHT be true; some might even have a grain of truth in them. One popular myth is that New York’s sewers are infested with alligators, the progeny of baby alligators dropped into toilets by people who brought them back from Florida as pets.
In their book “There Are Alligators in Our Sewers”, authors Paul Dickson and Joseph Goulder reported an interview with a former sewer commissioner who said that in 1935 his men discovered 2-foot alligators in the sewers and cleaned them out with rifles and poison. This urban legend continues to perpetuate, assisted no doubt by a Hill Street Blues episode years ago, which dealt, lightheartedly, with alligators in the sewers.
Jan Harold Brunvand is a writer who has capitalized, royally, on urban myths and legends, having authored “Curses! Broiled Again!”, “The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends,” “The Vanishing Hitchhiker: as well as several others. You will find the stories entertaining and may even recognize some that you’ve heard about or read about in the newspaper, passed along as gospel truth.
And what does all of this have to do with cookbooks or recipes?
Just this: while clipping recipes from a stack of old newspapers (my project every two years while the Olympics are on TV), I happened to come across an article by food writer Jan Malone who says, “In what has to be a classic example of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ Neiman Marcus has put a chocolate chip cookie recipe on its website.
“For years,” writes Malone, “Neiman Marcus has battled an urban legend that will not die. A ‘friend’ of the initial e-mail writer has lunch at the store’s Neiman Marcus in Dallas, eats a wonderful cookie, asks for the recipe, is told it will cost ‘two-fifty’; she thinks its two dollars and fifty cents but it’s really two hundred and fifty dollars She is so incensed when she gets her credit card bill and the store won’t refund her money, that she gets even by sending the recipe to every e-mail address she knows.
“Sometimes this tale of the greedy corporation,” Malone continues, “victimizing the small consumer who gets revenge…has a different villain. In fact, the same story circulated in the 1930s about a red velvet cake from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York”. THAT recipe “cost” $100.00 but hey, times were tough, it was the depression and all.
Malone says she has written about the cookie myth several times and one time encountered a guy who was offering a reward if the ‘friend of the email sender’ could produce a credit card receipt for the $250 purchase but so far there have been no takers.
Still, writes Malone, people refuse to believe that the story is a hoax even though Neiman Marcus says it never served cookies in its restaurants until recently and that it always shares its recipes free of charge.
NOW—as an update—I wrote my original story about urban myths for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 1998. While going through my notes, I wondered if the cookie story was still making the rounds –so I Googled it. AND the answer is – YES, the cookie myth is still making the rounds – but NOW if you type in “chocolate chip cookie myth” on Google – one of the sites that pops up is from – none other than Neiman Marcus with the recipe AND their offer – copy it, print it, pass it along to your friends and relatives. It’s a terrific recipe – and it’s FREE.
So how did this story ever get started? According to Los Angeles Times writer Daniel Puzo, “Pat Zajac, a Neiman Marcus spokesperson in Dallas, said that the tall tale has been circulating ever since she went to work for Neiman Marcus in 1986. The first newspaper story she saw on the bogus cookie recipe appeared in 1988…”
“One of the most interesting aspects of this phenomena,” says Puzo, “is that no one ever knows the exact source…the information is anywhere between third and 17th hand information…”
So as I dug through mountains of food-related clippings and files (you wouldn’t believe what I save) I happened to come across the very same recipe and the SAME story – but wait! Now it was titled “RECIPE FOR MRS. FIELD’S COOKIES”!
My recipe-sleuth buddies, Pat & Stan, who used to provide much research assistance, searched on the internet for information about the NOT-Neiman Marus $250 cookie or the Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet cake. They were richly rewarded for their efforts although Pat remained non-plussed. “I never even HEARD of the expression ‘urban legend’,” she told me, “Until you brought it up!”
One of the more interesting finds in their internet exploration, was a story about a $25 Fudge cake that appeared in a 1948 “Massachusetts Cooking Rules, Old and New”, which came with the following explanation:
“This friend had to pay $25 upon receipt of the recipe from the chef of one of the railroads. She had asked for the recipe while eating on a train. The chef gladly sent it to her, 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”. Sound familiar?
The Neiman Marcus cookie recipe was also reproduced in Regina Barreca’s 1995 book “Sweet Revenge: the Wicked Delights of Getting Even” where it was passed along as a tale one of her students received off the computer in March, 2994, supposedly a true story that happened to one “Donna Anderson”.
As to why these legends take on a life of their own, despite persistent and detailed debunking, one internet writer explains, “It’s the classic David and Goliath story”. It is, after all, the little guy smacking the big heartless corporation a swift one right across the nose, something both you and I have longed to do….”
I have copies of the $250 chocolate chip cookie recipe, complete with its urban legend—and the recipe is actually quite good—and I have seen the $100 Red Velvet Cake recipe in many old cookbooks, complete with the Waldorf Astoria’s Urban Legend. No mention of the Red Velvet Cake can be found, however, IN the Waldorf Astoria Cookbook. My researchers spent countless hours trying to track down the original, digging through stacks of old cookbooks and piles of clippings.
As it turned out, it was my dauntless researcher, Pat, who finally tracked it down with the help of her Arkansas Aunt Sharlette—who was in her 80s at the time I originally wrote this piece in 1998. Not only did Aunt Sharlette have the recipe WITH the Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake title FROM the 1930s—but she also had $100 also written across the side of it. Aunt Sharlette had gotten the recipe from her mother. Aunt Sharlette (who had an excellent memory) recalled that the story was of a couple of diners at the Waldorf, who asked for the recipe for the delicious chocolate cake they had had for dessert. Then they were told that the recipe would be $100—and now, as Paul Harvey would have said, you know the rest of the story. What gives me pause, in all of these cases, is that the recipes in question ARE really wonderful—you don’t need an urban legend tacked on to make them great.
To Make “Neiman Marcus” chocolate chip cookies:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso coffee powder
1-1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream the butter with the sugars using an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy (approximately 30 seconds)
2. Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract for another 30 seconds.
3. In a mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients and beat into the butter mixture at low speed for about 15 seconds. Stir in the espresso coffee powder and chocolate chips.
4. Using a 1 ounce scoop or a 2 tablespoon measure, drop cookie dough onto a greased cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Gently press down on the dough with the back of a spoon to spread out into a 2 inch circle. Bake for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned around the edges. Bake a little longer for a crispier cookie. Yield: 2 dozen cookies
To Make Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip cookies:
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 12 minutes
Total Time: 32 minutes
• 4 cups flour
• 5 cups quick-cooking oatmeal (measure first and then blend to a powder in food processor)
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 2 teaspoons baking soda
• 2 cups butter at room temperature (do not melt the butter beforehand)
• 2 cups granulated white sugar
• 2 cups brown sugar
• 4 eggs
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 12 ounces chocolate chips
• 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate bar, grated
• 3 cups chopped pecans or other nuts
• 1 cup raisins, soaked in hot tap water for 15 minutes, drained and patted dry (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line baking sheets with Silpat baking liners or parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, oatmeal powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar, and brown sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until fluffy.
Add flour mixture, 1/4 at a time, blending until combined.
Fold in chocolate chips, grated chocolate, pecans, and raisins, if using.
Scoop out balls of dough about the diameter of a golf ball. Place 2 inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
Yield: about 112 cookies
Note: This recipe makes a lot of cookies. You can cut the recipe in half – or do as I do; make the entire batch of dough. Bake a few dozen cookies. Then I shape the remaining dough into balls using a cookie dough scoop. I put the scoops of dough into 2-quart plastic Gladlock containers and when it’s full, cover and put it into the freezer. You have instant cookies whenever you feel like baking a few more.
This recipe made the rounds in my office in the early 70s with no attribution. I have no clue about its origin, but it has become a mainstream standard. It is an urban legend similar to the Neiman Marcus cookie. Mrs. Fields’ spokesperson has denied this emphatically, saying they have never sold their recipe to any individual. However, this recipe actually makes good cookies, very similar to the soft, chewy ones sold at her stores. As you can tell from the ingredients, they are far from heart-healthy, but they sure are good. Here is how the legend (I repeat…legend…) goes:
A woman who works with the American Bar Association called Mrs. Fields Cookies and asked for the recipe. She assumed it was a $2.50 fee, and she charged it to her credit card. It was not $2.50 but $250.00. In order to get her money’s worth, she shared the recipe with everyone.
If you google Waldorf Astoria cake, you will get over 29,000 hits—from which I must surmise that urban legends notwithstanding, the cake is alive and well whether the price on it is $25 or $100. Or $250.00 for that matter. I just want to add that the first time I tasted red velvet cake, my friend Sylvia had made it for one of our parties and I assumed (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the cake was something native to her hometown in Oklahoma.
To make the Waldorf Astoria $100 chocolate cake:
You will need:
1/2 c. butter
4 squares bitter chocolate
1 tsp. salt
1 c. nuts, chopped
2 c. sugar
2 c. cake flour, sifted
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 c. milk
2 tsp. vanilla
Cream butter and sugar. Add melted chocolate and eggs. Sift dry ingredients together and add alternately with milk. Add vanilla and nuts. Put batter in layer pans (greased and floured) and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Top with $100 Waldorf Chocolate Frosting.
To make the $100 Waldorf Astoria chocolate frosting:
1 lb. powdered sugar
1/4 lb. butter
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
1 c. chopped nuts
2 squares melted bitter chocolate or 1/4 c. cocoa, dissolved in sm. amount water
1 tsp. vanilla
Beat egg and add lemon juice. Add butter, chocolate and vanilla. Add sugar gradually, beating all the while. If frosting is too thick, add hot strong coffee or cream, as much as is needed to make frosting thin enough to spread.
Last but not least, the famous (or infamous) Red Velvet Cake:
Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake
• 1/2 cup shortening
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 2 eggs
• 2 ounces red food coloring
• 2 tablespoons cocoa (heaping)
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 2 1/4 cups cake flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon vinegar
• 3 tablespoons flour
• 1 cup milk
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 cup butter (must be butter)
Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 45 mins
* Cream shortening, sugar and eggs.
* Make a paste of food coloring and cocoa.
* Add to creamed mixture.
* Add buttermilk alternating with flour and salt.
* Add vanilla.
* Add soda to vinegar, and blend into the batter.
* Pour into 3 or 4 greased and floured 8″ cake pans.
* Bake at 350°F for 24-30 minutes.
* Split layers fill and frost with the following frosting.
* Frosting: Add milk to flour slowly, avoiding lumps.
* Cook flour and milk until very thick, stirring constantly.
* Cool completely.
* Cream sugar, butter and vanilla until fluffy.
* Add to cooked mixture.
* Beat, high speed, until very fluffy.
* Looks and tastes like whipped cream.
As a final word – urban legends continue to proliferate. Many are so disgusting that I wouldn’t even THINK of sharing them with my readers, even if they ARE myths, legends, completely untrue. If you want to find out for yourself, just Google “urban legends” and spend the next hour making yourself completely grossed out. As for ME I think I will make some Neiman Marcus or Mrs. Field’s cookies. Or a Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet cake – YUM!
–Sandra Lee Smith