Skip to main content

PS Picks: Atlas Obscura's Collection of Secret Family Recipes

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
A cupcake on display at the Magnolia Bakery on February 19th, 2010, at Rockefeller Center in New York.

A cupcake on display at the Magnolia Bakery on February 19th, 2010, at Rockefeller Center in New York.

This PS Pick originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive a print magazine subscription, early access to feature stories, and access to an ad-free version of


I remember the exact moment I learned that my Grandma Camp's Chocolate Cake recipe was actually Mrs. Wood's Chocolate Cake recipe. I was about to make the treat by myself for the first time and called my mom for the directions when she dropped that bomb. It felt a little like, if you'll allow me to be characteristically dramatic, one of the few connections I had to the grandmother I never met had been severed. Perhaps that's why I was so delighted by Atlas Obscura's "The Dirty Secret of 'Secret Family Recipes,'" a collection of readers' similarly devastating—and a few truly comical—realizations that made me feel both schadenfreude and understood.

It hints at all the ways our memories of food overlap with our memories of the people who made it, and why that's more important than the ingredients themselves. Maybe we'd all be better off if we just accepted the fact that the Toll House recipe actually makes the best chocolate chip cookies, and that secret family recipes are a myth. But I have nothing but respect for the reader's mother Atlas Obscura found who alters her top secret (plagiarized) cookie recipe when she shares it, so that the original will always be better—something I've long suspected my boyfriend's mom is doing to me (though, to be fair to Joanne, it could just as easily be my pathological inability to follow directions). And for Mrs. Woods, who, credit where credit's due, makes a delicious cake.