The truth behind many family “heirloom” recipes

 recipe cards

Everyone has cherished family recipes, handed down from mother (or father), who got it from her mother, who ostensibly received it from hers as well. An investigation by Atlas Obscura calls into question these “heirloom” recipes, and discovers that many of them were copied from cookbooks, food packages, and other locations

The site asked Gastro Obscura readers to submit stories of discovering that alleged “secret” family recipes were not, in fact, original creations. The stories poured in from all over the world, each a tale of a plagiarized family recipe or misunderstanding about the food’s origin. Most of the recipes were for cookies, cakes, and other sweets. 

One elderly gentleman, who was known as the “fudge man” by friends and family, was on his deathbed when his secret came out. His wife pleaded with him to give her the recipe so she could keep his memory alive. It turns out that the recipe people had begged him for years to release was none other than the one from the marshmallow fluff jar. 

Sometimes people didn’t claim to have a secret recipe but family members just assumed it was an original. That was the case with a woman who, along with her siblings, would watch their mother prepare pancakes without using a recipe. After the woman had left the house and was on her own, she called her mom to ask for the recipe and to find out if it had come from her Lithuanian grandmother. Her mother laughed, and said “No, I got the recipe from a cottage cheese lid.”

I’ve never investigated whether any of my family recipes came from the back of a package or the pages of a cookbook. Even if they did, I would still cherish their memory, although I would chuckle if my grandmother had passed off a back-of-the-box recipe as her own. Have you ever learned that a prized family recipe was not created by a family member? 

Post a comment


  • veronicafrance  on  April 1, 2018

    It's not really very surprising though, is it? Most of us get recipes from those sources, and some of them turn out to be long-running family favourites, to the extent that you don't have to consult the recipe any more. Plus they may also get tweaked a little over the years until they are not exactly the original recipe.

  • averythingcooks  on  April 1, 2018

    I've been thinking about this post all day. My mom''s "famous lemon squares" which made their way to endless potlucks at dog shows (for her) and curling club / school events (for me) etc were unapologetically from Canadian Living in the 80's. Neither of us hid it or pretended otherwise . People just appreciated (and still appreciate) the home baking !!

  • Hungry_Bek  on  April 25, 2018

    No but my grandmother used to make this dessert she called Norwegian Cream. It's a gelatine based dessert with cream and passionfruit and OMG I love this stuff. Really love it.

    When she died I did some research on it, and the closest thing I could find was Spanish Cream – the Norwegians don't seem to have anything like it.

    Since then I've wondered how far back (I'm 5th gen Aussie) this "Norwegian" recipe goes in our family. Grandma said it was handed down.

    I love it no less, whatever its provenance!

  • Deb54  on  April 26, 2018

    We had a family recipe for meatloaf. When my mother passed away, I inherited her recipe binder. As I was going through it, I found a matchbook cover with the meatloaf recipe on it. She never said it was her recipe, but we all just assumed it was.

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!