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.