Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Great Cookie Recipe from Nieman-Marcus

No discussion of Urban Legends would be complete without this.

What Snopes has to say about the Neiman-Marcus cookie hoax:

Claim: Neiman-Marcus charged a shopper $250 for its cookie recipe, not the $2.50 the woman had been expecting to pay. As revenge on the store for refusing to reverse the charge, she now provides the recipe for free and exhorts others to pass it along.

Status: False.

Origins: What we have here is a golden oldie of an urban legend, one second in tenacity only to Craig Shergold's request for business cards. It's the ultimate "strike a blow for the little guy," and in that lies its appeal. That by forwarding it on, we can be armchair heroes.

Though its present incarnation casts Neiman-Marcus as the bad guy, this legend has been around for at least 50 years, and it's been told of various companies (and various confections) during its long history. Here's a fine example from a 1948 cookbook, Massachusetts Cooking Rules, Old and New, which lists not only the recipe for "$25 Fudge Cake" but also gives the following explanation for the name:

This friend had to pay $25 upon the 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, 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.

Sound disturbingly familiar?


The 1960s saw this tale mutate into a villainization of New York's famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel over a dessert known as "Red Velvet Cake." A woman who'd dined at the hotel later wrote to ask for the recipe. The recipe arrived . . . along with a bill for $350, a bill her lawyer assured her she had to pay. Her way of getting even was -- you guessed it -- to distribute the recipe far and wide.

($350 is a shocking figure for those times. Just to give an idea of the relative worth of things back then, the grocery budget at my house was $50 a week for a family of four. Faced with a $35 dentist bill, my mother would for the next two weeks stand over me as I brushed my teeth at bedtime, making sure I wasn't half doing the job and thus sentencing the family to the poor house.)

By the late 1970s, this legend had shifted to Mrs. Fields and chocolate chip cookies. Indeed, this version proved so fiendishly popular that in 1987 the following notice signed by Debbi Fields was displayed in her 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 this story is not true, this is not my recipe and I have not sold the recipe to anyone. Mrs. Fields recipe is a delicious trade secret.

You rarely hear this tale told of Mrs. Fields these days -- the 1990s saw it shift yet again, this time to point a finger at Neiman-Marcus. One possible reason for this shift could have been a double misremembering of names as the legend was briefly told of the department store Marshall Fields: Mrs. Fields to Marshall Fields (similar name) and Marshall Fields to Neiman-Marcus (similar-sounding name plus both are department stores).

As the latest in a long line of victims, Neiman-Marcus has fielded numerous inquiries about the following tale (which I've excerpted from the rather lengthy canonical version):

My daughter & I had just finished a salad at Neiman-Marcus Cafe in Dallas & decided to have a small dessert. Because our family are such cookie lovers, we decided to try the "Neiman-Marcus Cookie". It was so excellent that I asked if they would give me the recipe and they said with a small frown, "I'm afraid not." Well, I said, would you let me buy the recipe? With a cute smile, she said, "Yes." I asked how much, and she responded, "Two fifty." I said with approval, just add it to my tab.

Thirty days later, I received my VISA statement from Neiman-Marcus and it was $285.00. I looked again and I remembered I had only spent $9.95 for two salads and about $20.00 for a scarf. As I glanced at the bottom of the statement, it said, "Cookie Recipe - $250.00." Boy, was I upset!! I called Neiman's Accounting Dept. and told them the waitress said it was "two fifty," and I did not realize she meant $250.00 for a cookie recipe.


(Neiman-Marcus refuses to strike down the bill; then comes the usual exhortation from the writer to pass this along to as many as possible.)

Especially in their particular case, the legend is even more improbable than usual in that:

  • Until quite recently there was no such thing as a "Neiman-Marcus" cookie. They developed a chocolate chip cookie in response to the rumor.

  • There is no "Neiman Marcus Cafe" at any of the chain's three Dallas-area stores. Instead, the restaurants are named Zodiac, Zodiac at North Park, and The Woods.

  • Neiman Marcus does not sell recipes from its restaurants. The department store gives them away for free to anyone who asks.

(Check out the Neiman Marcus web page for a bit about this piece of lore and their newly-developed chocolate chip cookie recipe.)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

  • 1 cup brown sugar

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar

  • 1 egg

  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1-3/4 cups flour

  • 1-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder, slightly crushed

  • 8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Directions

  • Cream the butter with the sugars until fluffy.

  • Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract.

  • Combine the dry ingredients and beat into the butter mixture.

  • Stir in the chocolate chips.

  • Drop by large spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet.

  • Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, or 10 to 12 minutes for a crispier cookie.

  • Makes 12 to 15 large cookies.

As to why this legend has taken on a life of its own despite persistent and detailed debunkings, it's a 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 often longed to do. This bit of faxlore invites -- nay, demands -- participation. Painless participation too. One tap of the "Forward" key and someone who always saw herself as part of The Forces For Good (but who could never find the time to change the world) gets to enjoy that wonderfully warming self-righteous feeling that comes from Striking A Blow. All it takes is either a couple of pins and a bulletin board or e-mail capability and an alias list and your good deed of the day is done and finished before the morning's first coffee has cooled.

What's the possible slandering of an innocent company when there's a cheap 'n' easy "warm fuzzy feeling" to be had? Like, would an anonymous, forwarded-a-million-times e-mail lie to you?

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