None of Your Business

Dear Helena,

At a friend’s house, I enjoyed the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. It was rich and creamy and light all at the same time, and it had a haunting taste. Perhaps it had orange-flower water in it. I’ll never know because I asked for the recipe and she refused, saying it’s a family secret. I was miffed. Why not share the love? —Cheesed-Off

Dear Cheesed-Off,

Clearly individuals or businesses with a commercial interest in selling food have the right to protect their recipes from use by potential competitors (though recipes are governed by a rather liberal fair-use policy). You probably wouldn’t have written this letter if the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain had declined to “share the love.” But when a civilian, and a friend at that, keeps the ingredients of a dish you simply want to make for your loved ones a mystery, it’s a different matter. It’s certainly within her rights to not tell anybody if she doesn’t want to. Yet it does seem rather exclusionary and self-important—like refusing to divulge the secret rites of your college fraternity to your spouse long after the fact.

However, there are a couple of good reasons why people like your friend may be keeping their lips sealed.

  • They’re honoring a dead relative: Whether you promised that you’d scatter his ashes in the Ganges or that you’d never utter the exact number of brandied cherries in his fruitcake, keeping one’s word to a dead relative is not to be trifled with. Your friend may also think the promise she made about the recipe seems selfish, but she is, first and foremost, a woman of honor.

  • The secret itself is the secret ingredient: You can only have the dish when the recipe’s keepers choose to make it, so when they do, the experience of eating it is imbued with importance. When Anne Clifford, a grant writer who lives in Albany, California, was growing up, her family made eggnog every Christmas from a secret family recipe. As an adult, Clifford learned that the ingredients were the same as most run-of-the-mill eggnog recipes. “What made it special,” says Clifford, “was it was such a big secret.”
However, your friend might like to know that there is a way to both protect family honor and ritual, and be generous to admirers. Simply tell part of the secret. Rebecca Charles, owner of Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, gave a version of her Caesar salad recipe, which she got from her mother, to writer Amanda Hesser for her book Cooking for Mr. Latte. But hewing to what she says was once a tradition among chefs, Charles left out one important ingredient and fudged a “timing issue.” The recipe is still good, but it’s not exactly the same.

Incidentally, if you want to try the real Charles family Caesar, you might find it not just at Pearl’s but also at Ed’s Lobster Bar, run by one of Charles’ former sous-chefs. At least according to Charles, owner Ed McFarland copied the secret recipe he learned from Charles, and has dubbed it “Ed’s Caesar.”

McFarland says his Caesar is “completely different” from Charles’ version. When pressed to describe the difference, he said: “It tastes fresher because I only make it in small quantities.” He refused to give any more details that would differentiate his salad, saying only: “It’s secret.”

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