Something borrowed

November 5, 2012

As any visitor here will know, the sharing of food is one of the great joys of my life – but I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the whys and wherefores of actually sharing recipes and ideas for dishes. It seems self-evident that folks who read – and write – cookery blogs have a natural, internalised desire to share knowledge and ideas about cooking, so it has always stunned me when people talk about having “secret” recipes.

Secrecy over recipes and the fierce withholding of kitchen expertise plays a central role in the film Toast, the dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s memoir of the same title (I’m assuming the same events occur in the book) . From Slater’s Wikipedia page:

[Slater] used food to compete with his stepmother – the former cleaning lady – for his father’s attention. Their biggest battle was over lemon meringue pie – his father’s favourite. His stepmother refused to divulge her recipe, so Slater resorted to subterfuge in order to turn out his own version. “I’d count the egg-shells in the bin, to see how many eggs she’d used and write them down. I’d come in at different times, when I knew she was making it. I’d just catch her when she was doing some meringue, building up that recipe slowly over a matter of months, if not years.”

Whatever the truth of Slater’s step-mum’s kitchen caper might have been, his portrayal of her represents a figure some people know well. I wonder if this kind of woman – always a woman in the stories I’ve heard – is still around, or is she only a figure of bygone eras, when a woman’s power in society was so limited that she felt she had to wield it in this manner?

Or am I inventing this Fifties Femme?

My own mother couldn’t give a damn about who had her recipes, but then she was never a particularly passionate cook to begin with. Unlike a friend’s aunt, who staunchly refused for decades to share the recipe for her legendary melting moments. Eventually, suffering a brief attack of magnanimity, Aunty Mean deigned to offer the recipe to her niece, a brilliant cook – but only on the proviso that she promised never to share it with her mother!  Rather takes the cake (boom-tish) for sibling rivalry, don’t you think? My loyal friend politely declined the offer, managing not to add, “It’s only a fucking biscuit!”

The holding of recipe cards close to the chest in this way speaks of all kinds of things that have, obviously, nothing to do with the biscuit. It implies that cooking is a contest, that the only value in making beautiful food for others is in your power to impress them, and indeed that one’s esteem in the eyes of others is so fragile that refusal to share something as trivial as a recipe will actually help maintain that esteem. When of course it just does the opposite – paints you as desperate rather than skilled, mean-spirited rather than generous. In fact the whole concept of generosity is completely absent in this kind of syndrome. As well, when all recipes spring from other recipes, it seems somehow dishonourable to suggest that my recipe alone is original, and therefore so much more valuable than yours. It also smacks of a lack of confidence about the bounty of creativity – this recipe is so precious because there will never be others to take its place. I’ve known writers like this in my time, who obsessively, vigilantly – and in vain – inspect the work of others for similarities to theirs. What such people seem not to understand is that this fearful obsessing over other people’s wells of creativity means that their own will always be in danger of drying up completely.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to say that among my friends and family, recipes and food ideas fly back and forth and round and about with complete abandon. Take the unbelievably good lemon curd fool we ate at the Empress’s palace last week, which I then immediately pinched for our dinner guests on Saturday night. It’s one of the easiest, quickest and yet most swooningly striking desserts you’ll ever try. Bizarrely, I had never made lemon curd until that day but now I know how easy and how very fine it is – my favourite meld of citrussy tartness and sweetness –  I’m going to find many other desserty avenues for it.

Which brings me to another part of the pleasure of sharing recipes; one leads to another, which then morphs into another which gives birth to another and another, in a rich cycle of generosity, abundance and plenty. And as soon as I “invent” – or am given! – a suitably delicious new incarnation of this luxurious dessert I’m inviting the Empress over to eat it.

Lemon curd fool

  1. Make a lemon curd – I used the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but there are thousands about – and let it cool, then chill (I made ours the day before).
  2. Whip some cream into stiff peaks – from memory I used 300ml pouring cream for a curd of 1.5 times Stephanie’s quantity.
  3. Mix the two together – that’s it! Simplicity itself.

We served ours in small glasses with a sploosh of passionfruit pulp on top of each one. The Empress had a wafer of home-made biscotti sticking out of hers. I can imagine all kinds of lovely toppings and additions –  crumbled pistachios maybe, or a little finely chopped mint?

Love to hear your tales of recipes shared or protected. Do people still refuse to share recipes? Or, as women have actually begun to take part in the world beyond the kitchen, has such desperate recipe-protection become a thing of the past? And I wonder if the syndrome has arisen among men as they begin to take up more space in the kitchen? Or am I looking at this whole thing from the wrong point of view? Is there any virtue in keeping “secret recipes” that I’m overlooking?

And if you have a favourite use for lemon curd, do share ……


  1. My long departed, great aunt, Nell, made the most deliciously memorable food when I was visiting as a child, dishes such as pickled pork, Christmas pudding boiled with sixpences, and lemon butter (or curd as the case may be). The memory of her food is in the cells of my body and can be recalled with words, such as lemon curd. 🙂

  2. Thanks for a great blog. It is quite sad that people can be so protective about their recipes, though I do think it is less common these days. I have even heard of people who used to actually leave some vital ingredient out of a written recipe when they gave it to someone else, so that the recipe would never turn out when followed! To me one of the joys of cooking is in sharing recipes with others, and I always note who gave me a recipe when it is written down for my recipe card box system.

  3. I agree almost completely, Charlotte, but then again there’s something about a family restaurant’s secret recipe, such as the variations on Pho that can be found on Illawarra Road. It’s all in the secret stock, so I am told. So small-time capitalism and secret recipes is perfectly OK with me, but I otherwise consider myself a hopeless recipe blabbermouth.

  4. I had a friend who married a Canadian and moved to a small community in rural Canada. They were church-goers and regularly went to Sunday pot-luck dinners with the congregation. The women there were fiercely competitive about their cooking and when asked to share would frequently refuse or, if they actually agreed to, would leave out an ingredient so that their reputation as the queen of that particular dish remained intact.
    I wonder what Jesus would do? 😉

  5. Personally I’m pretty darned happy if someone likes something I’ve cooked so much they ask for the recipe. And given that encouraging people to cook is part of what I do, it would be ridiculous, churlish and counter-productive for me to refuse. Food is for sharing, which means recipes are for sharing too.

    To be honest, I don’t think I could stop myself from sharing a recipe even if I wanted to. In my enthusiasm and excitement I’d blab most of the ingredients and method – you’re actually far more likely to get too much information from me when you ask for the recipe.

    Although I would always ask permission before passing on someone else’s recipe, just in case. It feels like the polite thing to do.

  6. Hi, the Brisbane Floods reminded us that if special recipes are never shared, a lifetime of cooking memories can be torn away by natural disasters. Our local radio station organised a wonderful recipe book – A Generous Helping – to help replenish those family treasures. So share those recipes – and when you have been gifted a recipe jewel include the giver’s name – I am certain that it always tastes better when you do!

  7. When my parents became engaged in 1935, my father gave my mother one of those recipe books with compartments for different types of recipes to be written in. My mother used it all her life as an autograph book and her friends filled the book with recipes over the years.

    My Mother, who died in 1993, would have turned 100 next year. Since her death I have typed up the recipes including the names of the donors and, together with some family photos and small biographies of the people who were special to her, have printed it out for my siblings. Recipes from the Depression and WW2 as well as those that became family favourites are now available to us all. I cannot understand people who must ‘own’ their recipes.

  8. The is a story in our family that is trotted out at various times–it is the story of my sister who made chocolate muffins for her coworkers. When they wanted the recipe, she replied that it was a family secret & the coworkers nodded sagely & cooed even more over the wonderful muffins. The big secret? Mud Muffin Packet Mix! 😉

  9. Such an interesting post, Charlotte.
    A moderately good cook, I am thrilled when anyone asks me for a recipe. I believe in food karma, ie that every time I share a recipe, the dish is enhanced and I will improve on it next time I make it.
    I also think that the meanness of cooks who won’t share or who deliberately thwart would-be cooks by passing on a recipe that is missing a vital ingredient, comes out in their cooking. You can taste the nastiness, so who wants to eat that?
    Love Helen’s story about her mother’s engagement recipe book. I have an old tattered one of my late mother’s which was bulging and bound by rubber bands. Funny thing was she kept adding to it over the years with magazine and newspaper cuttings, but hardly ever made anything other than chocolate slice and louise cake.
    I have it now and just looking at her handwriting comforts me immensely.

  10. Yum. As a lemon lover, I can’t believe I’ve never made my own curd – a fool indeed! I’ll be making this at the next excuse. Oh, and recipe hogs are still around. Not only have I been instructed never to share some, I’ve also had recipes given to me with a key ingredient missing – how’s that for passive aggression?!

  11. I love lemon curd – I have been known to eat it on it’s own, but I once made lemon curd tartlets as a sweet canapé… had to make a lot extra!

    In professional kitchens I’ve only known pastry chefs to keep their recipes to themselves but it’s always just a tiny secret ingredient – like putting orange zest into a chocolate brownie – so that if someone else makes it, everyone that tries it will say “It’s good, but not as good as [insert pastry chef name]’s!”

    I believe, although this is based on no evidence whatsover, that any cookbook you buy will not be the real recipe from the celebrity chef’s restaurant. They wouldn’t really share the true recipe for their michelin star/chef’s hatted signature dish, just a toned down version, surely?

  12. I remember my grandmother giving someone her recipe for orange cake and after the person left, scoffing ‘phuff she’ll never be able to make it. She will find it impossible to put that much butter in.’

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