Thursday, October 16, 2008

What's The Deal With Secret Family Recipes?

Since I've had recipes on the brain - and on the blog - this week, I thought I'd pose a question that's been on my mind for a couple of months. I've asked a few foodie friends, and none of us have come up with an answer that didn't have us scratching our heads.

A friend of mine told me a story. Here's a very abbreviated (and paraphrased) version:

She went to a church luncheon. She loved one of the dishes and asked the person who brought it if she'd share the recipe.

The yummy-dish-bringer responded, "Oh, that is a secret family recipe. I don't give it out."

Now, I wouldn't be posing the question if this was the only time I'd heard this. But, as someone who loves to cook and bake, I can tell you, I've heard it over and over.

I'm totally confused by this philosophy. I just don't get it. I LOVE to share recipes - especially family ones that we love so much or ones that I've come up with on my own that others have never had a chance to try.

Of course, I understand why a restaurant or family business might not share a recipe - it's their livelihood. But, outside of that, I just can't figure it out.

So, I thought I'd throw this out there.

Have you ever asked for a recipe and been told, "It's a secret family recipe"? Did you hear an explanation that made sense? Or didn't make sense?

If you have one in your family, can you share why it's secret? And, if you have one, is there some enjoyment in keeping a recipe secret that I'm missing out on?

Alrighty, let's discuss.


  1. Get this: we were dining in the home of FAMILY (close family too) and shared a dish that was divine. I asked the cook if I could get the recipe and she said in short; no, my kids are getting mad at me bc I'm sharing too many of our family recipes. But...I'm family!!! You're secret is safe with me darnit! :)

    I don't understand the philosophy either. If I have something yummy that I like to cook/eat you bet I'm gonna share. But that's just how I roll.

    Interesting question!

  2. It's been a pride thing in my family. My grandmother could cook and bake like no other. She was known for making the best lemon pie ever! She would always smile and be gracious when given a compliment on her food, but if asked for the recipe you could count on the fact that she would always say, "Oh, I dump a little of this and a little of that. I don't have a recipe." I begged her to teach me a couple of things before she died and she did.

    My family is sad to not have the recipes from this dear woman, but I know she was happy to go to her grave being the queen of great food. Crazy? yup, but she was still the greatest woman in my life.

  3. Good post - this bugs me too, because I like to share things as well, hence my cooking blog. If it is a credit thing, I'm always going to give the credit from where my recipes come from and not try to say it is my own.

    I think recipes are something that connect us. Think of the church cookbooks - some of the people in the older ones I have, I have never met, but I know their granddaughter or niece and I love making those connections with it.

    So, I say YES to sharing recipes, heehee

    I look forward to coming back and reading more responses!

  4. great discussion! i have a friend who makes the best sugar cookies! they are soooo soft and have wonderful melt in your mouth icing on the top. when i asked for the recipe, she just smiled and said - sorry, can't!

    then why make'em for others if your not willing to share the recipe??? go figure

    anyway i'm with you - i love to share recipes our family loves with others. Guess I’m just a giver that way 

  5. You know I like to share recipes, too. I don't understand, either. Although I have to say that just because we follow a recipe doesn't mean that the end result will be the same for everyone. Some people are just better cooks than others.

  6. I was a former recipe keeper. I will try and explain... I saw making something so good as my talent. So for example, if a family member can sing beautifully, you can't take that from them, you have to go to them to hear it. Having those recipes made me special in a way. Every Christmas friends and fam get so excited for my peanut butter balls... if they all had the recipe where would the excitement go?
    However, I have changed my view on that. Maybe it was getting sick, maybe it was growing up, but I just decided life is too short. Now I just see sharing a recipe as friends wow-ing other friends and I like the idea of sharing that moment when you feel so special as someone asks "can I have the recipe?".

  7. Oh, let's be honest...there's no such thing as a secret family recipe. Go back in time far enough, and you'll find some distant relative with a Betty Crocker cookbook. Considering how often this thing comes up, you'd think that 90% of us have family trees laden with professional chefs...and we all know that's a crock (har har). At best, a "family recipe" is something your family borrowed from someone a long time ago, but rest assured - try to keep it a secret, and sooner or later, someone will find a reasonable copy and your secret will be out. Remember, I work for Google. We have all the answers. ;)

  8. My recipes all involve a lot of barley, a little bit of hops, little bit of yeast and a couple gallons of water. I'm happy to share them with whoever wants them.

  9. ha i like Jay's recipe.

    Seriously though, let's not be greedy people! Share the goodness!! Leave the secrets to Colonel Sander...

  10. I actually have a friend that forces me to KEEP the secret for my spinach artichoke dip (which, by the way, is like the easiest thing in the world to make). She said she wants to ask for the recipe, but doesn't because she doesn't want to take the treat out of it. Like if she knew how to make it, she'd make it all the time and it wouldn't be special for her anymore when I make it (does that make sense?).
    So...maybe that works in reverse. Maybe people who know they make an absolutely divine dish want to keep it secret. That way, everyone will continue to clamor over the recipe whenever it graces a potluck and it will remain a special treat that only they can provide. Maybe it's all REALLY a matter of insecurity.
    Ok, maybe that's a stretch. I have no idea how I got from recipe hoarding to psychoanalysis. Sorry.

  11. I confess, I'm a recipe-secret-keeper. But only with a couple select desserts. The reason, I want those desserts to be my special treat for my friends and family. If I give the recipe out, then I've lost that special and unique food to share - unless I find another recipe and keep that one a secret. I want to be able to share with friends and family a special dessert that's (sort of) unique to me, so they are reminded of my love for them with each mouth-watering bite. Other than those few select recipes, I'll share all the others when asked for them.

  12. Guilty. I don't like giving out recipes of mine so much because I like that I am the only one who can make it. Prideful I know... but I think of it as job security. If someone wants somehting yummy that I like to make, than I will have to be invited. =0)

    Ps. I read you blog thanks to the Price's, they are my in-laws.

  13. I love sharing recipes, but I do have one that I do not give out. It's my great-grandmother's kolacky recipe. The only reason I don't give it out is because it's a family tradition to pass it on from generation to generation, but not outside the family. I think it's a neat part of my heritage that is kept within our family.

    I do think it's a great loss if someone makes something and the recipe goes to the grave with them. But I can understand families wanting to keep certain things within the family. Had my great-grandmother given the recipe out, I wouldn't have a problem sharing it. But because it was her preference to hold this one dear, we chose to honor her memory by doing the same. She had other recipes she did give out (and were published in cookbooks). For whatever reason, this one she held back.

  14. Whenever someone tells me it's a secret family recipe, I assume that means the person actually bought the entree/dessert/whatever from a store and is trying to pass it off as his/her own. I say that because I've done that before, too.

  15. LOL at Just Mom's comment :o)

    I share... I think it is an honor is someone asks for a recipe. I get most of my recipes from someone or some cookbook anyway, it isn't anything I have created on my own. I only wish I were that creative... I love to bake and cook so I am always on the look out for new recipes. I give credit where credit is due.

    I am thankful you share Sarah, we have been enjoying many of the recipes from you blog :o)

  16. I have had two very different experiences with this....

    Almost a decade ago I was at a superbowl party and the hostess had served this killer mexican cheese dip. I gobbled it up, told her how much I enjoyed it, and that I would love to have the recipe. She just smiled and said, "Sorry - it's a family secret." I was a little miffed, ok, maybe a lot miffed since I am still holding on to it a decade later!!! Instead of leaving the party feeling fat and happy and like I had experienced hospitality at its finest, I left with a bad taste in my mouth!!!

    My other experience with this resulted in the recipe that I cherish the most. It is a recipe for a simple, yet delicious chocolate cake. My dear friend grew up having it for every birthday in their house, and now makes it for her kids' birthdays. I always beg her to save me a piece whenever I know she will be making it.

    I asked her if it was a family secret (she would have given it to me even if it had been), and she laughed and shook her head.

    The recipe is handwritten by her in my recipe box, and at the top I wrote "Ashley's Chocolate Cake." I now make it for my boys' birthdays and because I love her so much, it makes me smile and warms my heart every time I pull out the recipe and see her handwriting and how thankful I am for her friendship.

  17. I don't get it either. I feel like if they aren't willing to share that recipe they shouldn't share the food either. If someone shares a recipe with me, their name goes with the recipe - like - Sarah's brownies...
    and I think of them everytime I make that recipe. Also - if I am asked for a recipe I find it flattering and am happy to share!

  18. Got me. I would totally share the recipe with ya.

  19. i've enjoyed reading all the comments left in answer to your question. after reading some of them, i can understand why some people might keep their recipe(s) a secret.

    but the two times when i've asked for the recipe and given the answer you're questioning, i too was miffed. it kinda felt like a slap in the face. i know i shouldn't have felt that way but i did. maybe it was because both bakers came off as smug when they said they couldn't give it to me.

    it did help me reading some of the answers people gave here. maybe next time i won't feel miffed.

  20. What a fun debate. Who knew this was such a hot button?

    I have a grandmother just like "just a thought ginger". She never will tell the secrets to anything she makes. I don't know if it's pride, or ego, or control. Whatever it is, I need to crack the code. I would love to know how she can make gravy that brings the house down.

    I think it might be the attention her cooking generates that keeps her from sharing. Not saying that's right, but it is a motivator for sure.

  21. Interesting discussion. I always share my recipes, but I will admit, I occasionally have to check my pride (wanting to make sure they give me credit for the recipe). I just think that ultimately, great recipes should be shared. Food brings me so much joy... :o)

  22. I'm with Janet Price and Janine. I share some recipes, but a few I keep to myself.

    I like to use them as special treats for family and friends.

    I also don't ask people for a lot of recipes. I like to search for recipes and adapt them myself.

    Part of the fun, creative process.

  23. Not sure how I stumbled upon your blog but I love it! And great question too.

    Personally, I always give out my recipes because if I made something that pleased someone so much, I want them to be able to enjoy it again. It brings me joy to share.

    To me, "holding on" to recipes is misplaced pride. I put love in preparing my dishes and am blessed when I know they are enjoyed. In a sense, refusing to give them out when asked would be like keeping love all to myself. Love's not worth much unless it's given away.

    Many sweet blessings!

  24. I make a few special things that everyone asks for; thankfully no one has asked for the recipes yet-- just for me to show up at potlucks and houses with the items! If they did ask, I'm not sue what I'd do. It isn't pride, it's a special gift I give my friends and family. Others can cook/bake just as well or better than I can, but I'm the only one who bakes these certain things with my own special spin. That is a little bit of my heart put into food that blesses others. if everyone made it, it wouldn't be special any more.


  25. What a fun discussion!

    If someone asks me for a recipe, I am honored to share it with them. I know that personally, whenever I use a recipe a friend gave me, it reminds me of them, which is a treasure.

    If someone refused to share their recipe, it would ruin the food for me, anyway, being soured by their attitude. Even if I have someone else's recipe, I still enjoy it when they make it...