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The Mysterious History Of The Neiman Marcus Cookie Hoax

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If you were the owner of an email address in the heyday of AOL and Hotmail, you’ve probably received a digital chain letter that told the story of an outrageously expensive cookie recipe sold to a woman by Neiman Marcus. Its origins are murky, but starting in the early 1990s, the Dallas-based luxury retailer became the subject of what is still one of the most mysterious (and bizarre) food hoaxes of all time.


There are countless versions of the Neiman Marcus cookie myth, but the basic story is as follows: A woman visited "Neiman-Marcus Cafe" in Dallas and ordered a dessert after her dinner — the Neiman Marcus cookie. The woman was so enthralled by the delicious cookie that she asked an employee at the cafe if she could have the recipe. When the employee declined, the woman asked to purchase the recipe, and was told that it would cost her "two-fifty." When the woman received her VISA statement a month later, she’d been charged $285 — $10 each for two salads, $20 for a scarf, and $250 for the famous cookie recipe.

Incensed by being charged $250 instead of the couple bucks she expected to pay, the woman published the recipe online as revenge. The supposed recipe for the Neiman Marcus Cookie always follows the stories, and is a pretty basic blueprint for a chocolate chip cookie — eggs, sugar, chocolate chips, brown sugar, and a grated Hershey’s chocolate bar are among the ingredients. Because the Internet is just one big virtual game of telephone, the recipe has been modified throughout the years. Some versions of the cookie’s recipe include oatmeal blended to a fine powder, others don’t.

The only problem with this colorful tale is that the Neiman Marcus cookie never actually existed. According to Neiman Marcus vice president of communications Ginger Reeder, the cookie was never served in Neiman Marcus’ restaurants until after the hoax went viral. "It used to be that I would answer letters. People would write us letters all the time — they were just incensed," says Reeder. "Then we started getting emails saying ‘how dare you charge this woman’ and ‘I’m going to send this email to all of my friends and make sure they know about this."

According to Reeder, there are a few inconsistencies that make the original story pretty implausible. Up until 1999, Neiman Marcus only accepted American Express, which would make it impossible for the woman in the story to have paid for the recipe with her VISA card. The retailer also denies that it has ever charged customers for any of its recipes. In fact, once the hoax became an online phenomenon, Neiman Marcus created its own chocolate chip cookie recipe and posted it for anyone to print and use online.

The real Neiman Marcus Cookie
Neiman Marcus

The official Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe was developed by Kevin Garvin, the chain’s director of food services. Now, they’ve embraced the myth fully — for $28, you can buy a box of about 50 of the chain’s signature cookie, or purchase a box of prepared mix to make your own at home. The official recipe is quite different from the one shared in the original chain letters, and more closely resembles a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, forgoing the oatmeal entirely.

It’s obvious that everyone loves chocolate chip cookies and a good story, but where did this fanciful yarn even come from? It’s never been tied to any individual person online, and no one’s ever taken responsibility for telling this tall tale. Neiman Marcus traces the origins of the myth to a similar story that dates back to 1949 involving the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

According to the tale, a woman visited the hotel, ordered a slice of chocolate fudge cake, and liked it so much she asked for the recipe. When she received her bill from the hotel, she’d been charged $100 for the instructions to make the cake, so she decided to spread them widely. A testament to the staying power of these hoaxes, a search for "$100 Cake," as it is called, still returns several thousand results on Google.

According to Snopes, the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe hoax may be an evolution of an urban legend that alleged similar culinary price gouging from Mrs. Field’s and the Marshall Field department store. It’s impossible to discern how exactly Neiman Marcus came to be the myth’s most recent target, but it may have something to do with the fact that the retailer is known for selling pricey gourmet foods. At present, you can score a dozen chocolate-dipped Belgian mini-doughnuts for the low price of $40, or drop $320 on a five-pound stuffed beef tenderloin.

Fortunately for Neiman Marcus, the anger surrounding the supposedly pricey recipe has, for the most part, dissipated. "I haven’t gotten an email about it in years, probably six or seven," says Reeder. "Snopes debunked the myth, and you can really check on these things more readily now. Still, the rumor persists thanks to — what else? — social media. Back in January, a post with the recipe spread across Facebook like wildfire more than 20 years after the original rumor surfaced, prompting publications to, once again, set the record straight.

After evolving from email chain letters to viral social media posts, the Neiman Marcus Cookie hoax continues to endure. Considering the ever-growing power of social media and the internet’s tendency to run with a good story whether or not it is actually true, it’s likely that this is one of those urban legends that won’t ever go away. It also probably doesn’t hurt that everyone loves an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.

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