For Gloria Pitzer, Unlocking the Secrets of Fast-Food Recipes Is Easy: Just Fake and Bake

updated 05/07/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1990 01:00AM

The two all-beef patties aren't the problem. Neither are the sesame-seed buns. As for lettuce, cheese, onions and pickles—why, they're available almost everywhere. It's the special sauce that makes it almost impossible for the home cook to replicate the Big Mac. Now, however, Gloria Pitzer thinks she has cracked the code. Pitzer's recipe for success is simple:

1 cup Miracle Whip salad dressing
1 1/3 cups Kraft creamy French dressing
¼ cup sweet pickle relish
1 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp pepper
1 tsp dry minced onion

Stir them all together and you get something that Pitzer swears tastes suspiciously similar to the "special sauce" that McDonald's uses.

Pitzer, who likes to bill herself as the Rich Little of food ("I do with recipes what he does with voices"), can also come up with a reasonable facsimile of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Heinz ketchup, White Castle hamburgers and Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. She can also duplicate Hostess Twinkies, Oreo cookies and Stove Top stuffing.

In all, Pitzer, 54, of St. Clair, Mich., claims to have copied more than 5,000 dishes, many of which depend on so-called secret sauces for their distinctive flavor—and many of which might fall under the heading of junk food.

"I take the junk out of junk food," says Pitzer. "You know what goes into my recipes." Gloria is careful to point out that she doesn't actually know what the big chains put in their food. "I don't try to dissect the foods and figure out the chemical ingredients," she says. "I never, ever try to steal anyone's secret corporate recipe. I just do my best to duplicate the taste."

Pitzer and her family try to come up with names for her dishes that skirt the problem of trademark infringement but definitely get the point across. For instance, her cheeseburger is called a Big Match, the cookies are Gloreos, and the Hostess Twinkies are Hopeless Twinkles. Even so, she has had mixed responses from the fast-food giants, some of which were flattered by her imitations—and some of which were not amused.

Her Famous Nameless cookie got the attention, and approval, of none other than Famous (Wally) Amos himself, Pitzer boasts. "He gave me a big hug and said, 'Gloria, I don't put cake mix and mayonnaise in my cookies, but yours are great. Promise me you won't go into the cookie business.' " And Colonel Harland Sanders gave her a tip for duplicating his finger-lickin' specialty when they appeared together on a talk show: "I needed a bit more pepper, and I didn't need all 12 spices."

Pitzer discovered her calling when she was eating in a Detroit-area restaurant in 1962. She loved the cheesecake and asked the chef what his secret was. He told her that the recipe was a secret. A busboy, however, told her that the cheesecakes were bought, not homemade. Pitzer finished her meal and headed out to the alley behind the restaurant and began going through the garbage. In the third trash can she found what she was looking for—empty Sara Lee cheesecake boxes. That set her off on two weeks of experimenting, as she sought to duplicate the taste.

Meanwhile, Pitzer began writing a weekly food column for the Port Huron Times Herald. "The food page included a Q & A feature," she says. "The first letter I received asked how to make McDonald's Big Mac special sauce. I drove to the closest big town—there weren't that many McDonald's then—and ordered one. It didn't take long to figure out that the sauce was nothing more than a good Thousand Island dressing." Pitzer experimented in her kitchen until she came up with what she calls a "darn good match." which she published in her column. "We received a huge response." she says, "and my boss told me to make it a regular feature."

For six years Pitzer researched and duplicated a different recipe each week, and eventually she ran the Sara Lee recipe. As it happened, the recipe appeared in the same edition as a Sara Lee ad. "My editor climbed all over me and told me to drop that part of the column," she says. Pitzer went one step further—she quit—and decided to continue her endeavors and publish the results in a monthly newsletter (now a bimonthly). To raise money for the venture—and a mimeograph machine—she took in ironing, baby-sat and tutored—and kept the whole thing secret from her husband, Paul, an account representative for a sign company. "The economy was very bad then," she says. "He didn't think it was a good idea for a woman with five little kids to take a portion of the family budget and break out on her own." (When the newsletter's circulation began skyrocketing, Paul quit his job and went to work with Gloria.)

As the $12-a-year newsletter boomed—its current circulation is 5,000—Pitzer began publishing her recipes in book form. Six of her 27 books and booklets are currently in print, at $7 each.

She and Paul, who live modestly in the three-bedroom Cape Cod they share with one of their five children, have turned down offers from big publishing companies, preferring to keep their operation strictly mom-and-pop. Says Gloria: "We do a better job than people who do it for money."

There are some things, after all, that cannot be faked.

—Michael Neill, Julie Greenwalt in St. Clair

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