The Rip-Off Recipe Legend

During the 1940s (though possibly earlier) a rumor began to circulate in America about a customer charged an exorbitant fee by a restaurant after requesting a copy of a recipe. According to the rumor, the customer (usually a woman) had enjoyed one of the items on the dessert menu and asked the management if they would be willing to share the recipe with her. The management responded affirmatively, but later sent her an outrageously large bill, which she learned that she was legally obligated to pay. In revenge, the woman decided to share the recipe with the general public, free of charge.

In the tale, the restaurant was usually an upper-class establishment, whereas the woman was middle-class (often from the midwest). Thus the story offered a lesson about the greed of the rich vs. the down-to-earth sense of fair play of the middle class.

The tale of the Rip-Off Recipe became one of the most widely circulated urban legends of the twentieth century. During the remaining decades of the century the tale evolved, with names and specific details changed, but the basic narrative remained the same. There is every indication that the tale is still going strong in the twenty-first century.

Cake at the Waldorf

Time magazine, in a January 29, 1945 column, printed the earliest known reference to the legend:

Just As You Say. In Kansas City, a local schoolteacher, home from vacation, dreamed of the dainties she had enjoyed at her Manhattan hotel, wrote for the recipes, concluded, "Naturally, I am willing to pay for them." By return mail, she received the recipes, and a bill for $100.

By 1949 more specific details had been incorporated into the legend. New York City's fancy Waldorf-Astoria Hotel became the villain in the story, and the item it was overcharging for became a fudge cake recipe. From the Mt. Pleasant News (Sept. 17, 1949):

A Little Falls, New York woman was lunching one day in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She ordered chocolate cake for dessert and was served the "most delicious fudge cake I have ever eaten." She asked the chef for the recipe and was turned down. But she could not forget the cake and nothing seemed so important as getting the recipe for it. On her next visit to New York she again sought out the chef and this time offered him a $100 bill if he would tell her how to make it. The chef promptly sat down and wrote out the recipe, calling it simply "Fudge Cake". But to the woman who paid such a handsome sum for it, the recipe was named "$100 Cake".

By the 1960s the Waldorf's fudge cake had evolved into a more exotic delicacy: "Red Velvet Cake." The cost of the cake had also inflated to $300. From the San Mateo Times (February 12, 1964):

It seems that a woman from Seattle was dining at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and was deeply impressed with the cake served to her one evening. It looked like red velvet with the beautiful white frosting. She asked the hotel people if they would send her the recipe. They did but it arrived C.O.D. with a charge of $300. She paid the cost and then consulted her lawyer who told her she could do nothing to get her money back. Since the price of the recipe had been so costly to her, she decided all her friends should enjoy baking and eating this luscious and extravagant Red Velvet Cake.

There really is such a cake as "Red Velvet Cake." The red color comes from food coloring. It has been a popular delicacy in the northeastern United States throughout the twentieth century.

Although there is disagreement about when the Waldorf Astoria first began serving this cake (whether it was before or after the emergence of the legend), it is certain that the hotel never charged a customer for the recipe. By the 1970s the hotel was giving away free copies of a "Red Velvet Cake" recipe in an effort to end the rumor.

Mrs. Fields Cookies

During the early 1980s, Mrs. Fields Cookie Company became the new villain in the rip-off recipe legend. On January 9, 1986 the Chicago Sun-Times reported this version of the tale:

A woman who works at the American Bar Association called Mrs. Fields to get the recipe for its famous chocolate chip cookie. She was told there would be a "two-fifty charge." "Put it on my Visa," she said. Well, she got the bill for "two-fifty" all right - $250. For revenge, she began passing out the recipe to everyone in sight.

The spread of the rumor eventually prompted the founder of the company, Debbi Fields, to respond personally. She posted a notice in all Mrs. Fields's stores:

"Mrs. Fields recipe has never been sold. There is a rumor circulating that the Mrs. Fields cookie recipe was sold to a woman at a cost of $250. A chocolate- chip cookie recipe was attached to the story. I would like to tell all my customers that the story is not true."

The store also promised to reimburse the woman who was charged $250, if she ever identified herself. She never did.

Reportedly Debbi Fields herself, out of curiosity, prepared a batch of cookies based on the recipe that was circulating with the rumor. They turned out to be quite dry, because the recipe (unlike the genuine Mrs. Fields cookies) included oatmeal as an ingredient.

Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe

In the mid-1980s the legend changed target from Mrs. Fields to Neiman Marcus. In the new variant of the tale, a customer at a Neiman Marcus Cafe asked a waitress for the restaurant's chocolate chip cookie recipe. The waitress told her it would cost two-fifty. The customer agreed and asked that it be added to her already signed bill. Later she discovered she had been charged $250, not $2.50.
Links and References
  • "Miscellany." (Jan. 29, 1945). Time.
  • Norton, Neil. (February 12, 1964). "Sugar 'n' Spice." San Mateo Times.
  • Smith, Marcia. (Sept. 11, 1986). "Bogus cookie recipe puts a chip on baker's shoulder." Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Brunvand, Jan Harold. (Feb. 16, 1987). "Cookie Yarn Crumbles under Scrutiny." The Post Standard.


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