How the Top Secret Recipe Craze Began

In 1987 I received in the mail a recipe with a letter attached, claiming it was the secret formula for Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. The sheet looked like a fifth- or sixth-generation photocopy. It told a curious story that went something like this: A woman had called the Mrs. Fields office in Park City, Utah, and requested the recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Someone at the office agreed to provide the recipe but told the woman it would cost her $2.50. The woman placed the fee on her credit card, and when she received her statement, was startled to see a charge for $250! She was so upset about the loss that she started a chain-letter campaign, sending out dozens of copies of the recipe to friends and family members, and encouraging them to do the same.

It didn't take long to realize that this wasn't actually the recipe for Mrs. Fields Cookies, much less a recipe that even came close to the original. So what was it then? Someone's idea of a really bad prank? Or perhaps something much more devious? Whatever the reason, someone was working hard at getting this chain-letter recipe into mailboxes all over the country, and I had become one of the lucky recipients.

I would later discover that this bogus recipe had been spreading quickly across the country. And the effects of this seemingly innocent chain letter were spelling out big problems for the Mrs. Fields company.

People who tried the recipe were disillusioned by the finished product -- a cookie that did not taste at all like a Mrs. Fields cookie but more like the coaster I set my coffee on. And the chain letter gave the impression that the company was in the business of selling its recipe -- a claim that's simply not true. Some people even responded by accusing the firm of mistreating the woman caller.

It took the company a long time to overcome the adverse effects of the chain letter. Prominent signs were placed inside each store discrediting the recipe. You may have seen them. The cookie company never did discover the chain letter's creator or the motive behind it.

Fortunately for the company, today the incident is only a bad memory. But I remained inspired by the popularity of the recipe. Thousands had seen it and passed it on, feeling privy to this "secret" that they wanted to share. Too bad they were misled.

With all of this in mind, I focused on the recipe and wondered what it might take, aside from common kitchen sense, to make the recipe more like the original, soft and chewy in the center but crispy around the edges with a deep, buttery, vanilla aroma that lures customers away from their shopping over to the Mrs. Fields cookie counter. What would have to change to make it taste like the original cookies that Americans can't seem to pass up? In time, with a little trial and error and flour in the eye, I came up with a cookie that tasted just like Mrs. Fields's -- it was delicious! My kitchen cloning craze had begun.

I figured I'd see what else I could duplicate. How about a Big Mac? I went to McDonald's, bought the real thing, and took it apart. It wasn't hard to find a dressing like the "Special Sauce" (Kraft Thousand Island) and then build a burger the same way McDonald's teaches it at Hamburger University.

I spent the next five years learning about cooking from the inside out. I cooked and baked and boiled to create clone recipes of famous foods. I learned the properties of different ingredients -- which would thicken or sweeten, which would brown, when to fry. I learned from doing it over and over again, out of curiosity.

As I continued adding clone recipes to my growing list, I realized it would make a fun book. I did some line drawings of the products, put it all together, and eventually found a publisher -- who didn't think I was entirely nuts!

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