Chain Letters Aren’t Tasty

Dear Helena,

Recently a friend sent me a chain letter as follows:

1) Susan Smith
2) Bob Black

You’ve been invited to be a part of a recipe exchange. Please send a recipe to the person whose name is listed in the number 1 position…Then, copy this letter into a new e-mail…Send it to 20 friends. If you cannot do this within 5 days, please let me know so it will be fair to those participating….

I don’t have 20 friends who cook, and I hate forwarding unnecessary emails. But I don’t want to ruin the fun for the person who sent the letter. What do you think—is it OK to forward such a letter? And if I choose not to participate, do I have to email my friend and explain why, or can I just let it slide? —My Friends Don’t Cook

Dear My Friends Don’t Cook,

Some chain letters are pyramid schemes, requiring you to send money to other participants. And some letters threaten awful consequences if you break the chain (like a dead African girl stealing your soul). Obviously you shouldn’t forward these: Pyramid schemes end up exploiting someone, and it’s not nice to scare your friends. This recipe chain letter, which I, too, received, is relatively benign. But to some, it’s spam. Anne Burnham, a writer and book editor in Pittsburgh, says: “I have so many favorite recipes, and files full of ones I want to try someday, that I’m not sure it is worth the time and a choked-up in-box.”

As when someone sends you an unfunny joke you don’t feel like looking at, all you need to do is hit Delete if you’re not interested in participating. You have no obligation to contact the sender since the letter seems to expect a low response rate. If you don’t forward the message, chances are it doesn’t mean the chain will be broken. And so what if it did? The sender didn’t ask your permission before including you in this time-consuming leisure activity. It’s not your fault if he can’t find enough players to play his game. If your friend ever asks if you got the letter, just claim ignorance and blame it on your spam filter.

Recently a fellow guest at a dinner party gave me and each of the other guests a baggie containing a squishy beige substance, along with a printed recipe for Amish Cinnamon Bread. I was instructed to feed the mush, which was starter, with flour, sugar, and milk over 10 days, bag some of it up for two friends, then use the remainder to bake the dish. At first I thought I had finally found a chain letter I could get behind. Then I noticed that the ingredients included “one large box instant vanilla pudding.” This didn’t seem very authentic. If the Amish eschew zippers as being too modern, how could they endorse instant pudding? But Lucy Leid, the editor of Countryside Cooking & Chatting, an anthology of Amish and Mennonite recipes, says, “Some Amish recipes use pudding mix.”

Nonetheless, ultraprocessed ingredients spoiled the old-world charm of the cinnamon bread for me, and I threw the starter away when I got home. Thankfully, in this case, there’s no curse attached to breaking the chain.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.