The guests were praising the cook's gourmet talents Everything was executed to perfection -- the clams casino, the beef bourguignon and particularly the fettuccine Alfredo.
"This is the best fettuccine Alfredo I have ever eaten anywhere," one of the male guests proclaimed with the flourish of a critic anointing a restaurant with four stars. "It is far better than I have eaten in some of the finest Italian restaurants. My, dear, you are a wonder in the kitchen."
While the cook was pondering whether or not to confess her secret, her big-mouthed female guest blurted out the truth: "Oh, that? She did it in 15 minutes. A moron could do it. The recipe comes from the back of the Ronzoni box."
Whether it's fettuccine Alfredo from the Ronzoni box or California dip from a Lipton dry soup mix, the recipes on the package are the classics of down-home American food that real people really cook. They may not be the recipes that everyone brags about, but they certainly are the old standbys that nearly everyone cooks. And, even if you scratch a snooty gourmet deep
"These recipes are important to a lot of people," says Michael McLaughlin, a food writer for upscale gourmet magazines who has written the latest in the back-of-the-box collections, "The Back of the Box Gourmet" (Simon & Schuster, $14.95).
Mr. McLaughlin, a foodie who admits to stocking three kinds of olive oil and having a favorite brand of sun-dried tomatoes, says it's unlikely that he would have written a book like this five years ago when Americans were submerged in their duck sausage pizza mania. Then, just the thought of a Pina Colada Cake with pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries and coconut garnish was enough to send a foodie into hysteria.
But when John Boswell, a cookbook packager best known for his "365 Recipes" series, took Mr. McLaughlin the back of the box idea, he agreed without hesitation. The concept has been done many times before, but never quite like this.
For example, his anecdote about the Lipton California dip recipe, illustrates the McLaughlin formula for mixing nostalgia with a dash of humor:
"When my pajama-clad brothers and I were small, huddled at the top of the stairs listening to mysterious adult partying below, 'onion dip' seemed the height of grown-up sophistication. Later, when the three of us were allowed to hold our own ersatz parties while our parents were away at the real thing, the dip (plus smoked oysters, olives and cubes of Cheddar cheese on toothpicks, washed down with 7-Up) was always on the menu.
"This imagined savoir-faire was based on our childish sense that dips (particularly onion soup dip) were what grown-up celebrants ate while having a good time."
Nostalgia may be important to home cooks, but it's the last thing the minds of the manufacturers. The companies develop these recipes or sponsor contests to reward cooks to develop them so that they can create more of a demand for their products.
The criteria has remained basically the same throughout the years -- the recipes are easy to prepare with inexpensive ingredients that are easy to find throughout the country.
But at some of the larger companies with multi-brands, such as Pillsbury, the criteria becomes more complex. Typically, Pillsbury develops recipes for the packages that echo the marketing strategy for the product.
"A product such as American Mixtures [vegetables with a light sauce], appeals to customers that are looking for something quick and healthy," says Sally Peters, Pillsbury's director of consumer service. "So we would develop recipes with a short list of ingredients that you would have on hand and instead of sour cream, we might use yogurt."
Although the companies like to change the recipes on the boxes occasionally, many times the customers aren't amused.
*After carrying a basic pizza dough recipe on the Hot Roll Mix for nine years, Pillsbury's product gurus thought it was time to substitute a recipe for caramel pecan rolls. Customers were outraged and Pillsbury soon learned that pizza dough was a primary use for the product. It took several months to change the label to the pizza recipe, but meanwhile the coveted recipe for pizza dough was included in a package insert.
*Nabisco Brands, Inc. took the recipe for mock apple pie (a pie made with crackers, lemon, sugar, spices and water) off the Ritz cracker box more than a decade ago; it had been on the box more than 50 years. Every year since it was removed, Nabisco has received 1,500 requests for the recipe. It's now back on the box.
*A famous local squawk developed in 1985 when Baltimore Spice Co. executives decided to pre-package the ingredients for Maryland crab cakes in a product called Crab Cake Classic. At the same time, the company removed the crab cake recipe from the box of Old Bay seasoning -- a recipe that had been on the box since the early 1950s.
"I can tell you from personal experience that we got hundreds of telephone calls," says Debra Botterill, product manager for the Old Bay division, which is now owned by McCormick/Schilling.
"Typically, they would call about a quarter to five in the afternoon and you could hear the frying pan spattering in the background. They were desperately looking for the crab cake recipe. I can assure you that those of us who were responsible for reciting the recipe over the phone have it memorized for life. I swore on a stack of bibles that I would never take it off the box again."
But wouldn't you think Marylanders would know how to make crab cakes by this time? Or, if you loved a recipe wouldn't you write it down?
Not so, say the food manufacturers.
Sure, Marylanders know how to make crab cakes, Ms. Botterill says, but it's Old Bay that gives a crab cake its Maryland flavor and they often can't remember how much Old Bay to use.
And, if the recipe was always on the box, consumers expect it to be there forever.
"Even I don't have the Toll-House cookie recipe written down," says Pillsbury's Ms. Peters. "You buy the package and just expect it to be there."
"One woman told us she had kept an empty can on her shelf for years because she was saving the recipe," says Polly Murray, manager of consumer affairs for McCormick/Schilling. "Somebody in the family thought they were doing her a favor and threw the old can out. She called in a panic to get the recipe."
Michael McLaughlin says this recipe from Campbell's defines the American casserole:
Classic tuna noodle casserole
Makes 4 servings.
1 can (10 3/4 ounces) Campbell's Condensed Cream of Celery Soup
1/2 cup milk
2 cups cooked medium egg noodles (2 cups uncooked)
1 cup cooked peas
2 tablespoons chopped pimento
2 cans (about 7 ounces each) tuna, drained and flaked
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs
In 1 1/2 -quart casserole, combine soup and milk. Stir in noodles, peas, pimento and tuna. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until hot; stir.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and stir in bread crumbs until lightly browned. Top casserole with bread crumbs; bake 5 minutes more.
Gilding the lily: Use mushroom soup in place of the celery soup. Use short, curly fusilli-type pasta instead of the noodles. Frozen peas need not be cooked, only defrosted. The browned bread crumbs are a nice touch, but if you prefer potato chips on your tuna noodle casserole, lightly crush about 1/2 cup, sprinkle them over the top before stirring and bake another 5 minutes.
Polly Murray, manager of consumer affairs for McCormick/Schilling says this recipe for lemon chicken is a customer favorite.
Elegant lemon chicken
Makes 4 servings.
1 package McCormick/Schilling Bag 'n Season for chicken
2 1/2 pounds chicken pieces
1 can (10 3/4 ounces) cream of celery soup
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon McCormick/Schilling tarragon leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put opened roasting bag in a 9-by-13-by-2-inch metal baking pan. Wash and dry chicken. Roll in seasoning mix, coating all sides. Put skin side up in a single layer in the bag.
Put any remaining seasoning in a bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Cover chicken with soup mixture. Close bag with twistie about 2 inches from end. No part of bag should be extended over sides of the pan. Puncture 4 small holes in the top of the bag.
Put the baking pan in the lower half of the oven leaving about 8 inches between racks. Cook 50 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes. Cut across top of bag and remove chicken. Skim excess fat from sauce and spoon sauce over chicken.
These two recipes are favorites that I have been using for more than a decade. The vinaigrette comes from the Grey Poupon bottle and the fettuccine Alfredo comes off the Ronzoni box.
Dijon vinaigrette salad dressing
Makes 1 cup.
3/4 cup salad oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons Dijon white wine mustard
Mix all ingredients together in a cruet with stopper or a bottle and shake well.
Makes 3 to 4 servings.
1 package (12 ounces) extra long fettuccine
2/3 cup light cream
1/4 pound butter, preferably sweet
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Cook noodles according to package directions. While noodles are cooking, melt butter. Place drained, hot noodles in warm serving bowl or platter. Pour cream over the noodles. Then add melted butter and about half the cheese. Toss noodles with a fork and spoon until well blended, adding balance of the cheese a little bit at a time while tossing. Top with additional grated cheese, if desired.
Note: The original recipe contained an uncooked egg yolk, but because of problems with salmonella contamination in raw eggs it is advisable to omit the uncooked egg yolk. Over the years I have made some other adjustments. For a good cheesey flavor, use half Pecorino Romano cheese and half good quality Parmesan. You can add peas for color and pine nuts for crunch. Or dust the top with a little freshly ground nutmeg or freshly ground black pepper.