Kathleen Purvis

How does a recipe become legend?

Who knows how these ideas start? One cook throws a few things together. Someone else likes it.

The recipe gets emailed, blogged and pinned on Pinterest. Pretty soon, that throw-together recipe has taken on more mythology than Paul Bunyan’s recipe for stewed blue ox.

Sam Sifton, the food editor at The New York Times, tracked down the threads this week in a story on the murky origins of a pot roast called Mississippi Roast. The recipe sounds almost too good (and too trashy) to be true: You toss a chuck roast in a slow cooker with a packet of buttermilk ranch dressing powder, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy mix, a stick of butter and 8 or 10 of those pickled peppers called pepperoncini, then cook until it falls apart.

I played a very small role in helping Sifton track down the recipe. One afternoon in September, I was sitting at my eye doctor’s, waiting for my eyes to dilate and squinting at the emails on my phone when Sifton’s name popped up.

Yes, it’s true – I’m a fan girl of certain food writers. Getting an email from Sifton is like being a minor league pitcher and having Nolan Ryan ask how you throw a curve.

Sifton had seen this weird recipe all over the Internet and wanted to know if I had started it. A couple of things went through my mind: One, yes, I winced a little that he saw a powdered-mix pot roast and thought of me. Two, yes, I winced a little because the mighty New York Times had beaten me to a story.

I swallowed my pride and tried to be helpful: “Not me, sugar,” I replied. “I’d have called it Tar Heel Roast.”

Who could resist a recipe like that, though? My mother’s pot roast included Lipton onion soup mix, so who am I to sniff at a little powdered ranch dressing? It was a decent enough roast. The buttermilk gives it a distinctly milky aroma that my son called “that pot roast that smells like cheese.”

I couldn’t write about it, though. There is honor among food writers, and it was Sifton’s story. This week, he posted it at www.nytimes.com about the crazy Mississippi Roast. Turns out, it was started by a woman named Robin Chapman in Ripley, Miss.

Sifton, of course, had to fix it up a bit: All that powder tasted too chemical, so he swapped in homemade buttermilk dressing, cut the butter in half and added more peppers. Not as handy, but it may taste better.

Still, I had to ask: Does Mr. Big City Food Editor make it a habit to troll Pinterest?

No, he admitted. A co-worker told him about it: “And by evening, I was obsessed.”

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Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

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