- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Internet tales get passed around like common colds, and for most of us, it's impossible to avoid either.

Pierre Salinger fell victim. The former press secretary to President Kennedy and correspondent for ABC was all but crucified after peddling phony Internet gossip claiming that TWA Flight 800 was shot down off Long Island by the U.S. Navy.

Writing later about Mr. Salinger being "hoaxed," the late syndicated columnist Mike Royko admitted he, too, fell victim to a phony government environmental form culled off the Internet.

After the incident, Mr. Royko made it his policy to view the Internet "not as an 'information highway,' but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies."

Recent cyberspace myths have included the urgent warning that the post office will try to add a surcharge to all e-mails, the urban legend about prospective gang members who drive with their headlights off and shoot any driver who signals them to turn them on, and the claim that Nostradamus predicted the election of George W. Bush in a cryptic 1555 reference to ascension of "the village idiot" at the time of the millennium.

Then there's the long-circulated yarn about the frog-hunter in Arkansas who stuck a .22 caliber bullet in the fuse box of his pickup truck to fix a broken headlight. The bullet overheated, fired and struck the man in the right testicle, causing the driver swerve crash into a tree. Although it sounds plausible, it never ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, cited in the chain e-mail as the source of the tale.

One of the longest-running, most widely distributed whoppers on the Internet so old it precedes the Internet in the form of a chain letter is the Neiman Marcus chocolate-chip-cookie story.

Newspaper columnists the world over, including Mr. Royko, have tried to inform readers that the cookie story is an "outright lie," yet it's still passed around like, well, the common cold.

Here's how it goes:

A woman and her daughter, while eating lunch at the Neiman Marcus Cafe, try the "Neiman Marcus Cookie." Afterward, the woman asks for the recipe, only to be informed by the waitress that the department store does not give it away but will sell it for "only two fifty." Assuming the charge will be a mere $2.50, the woman agrees to have the charge added to her tab.

Thirty days later, the woman receives a $250 charge on her Visa card for the cookie recipe. Outraged, she calls the store's accounting department and demands they remove the charge. They refuse to budge.

The e-mail reads: "I waited, thinking of how I could get even, or even try and get any of my money back. I just said, 'OK, you folks got my $250, and now I'm going to have $250 worth of fun.'

"I told her that I was going to see to it that every cookie lover in the U.S. with an e-mail account has a $250 cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus … for free… .

"So, here it is: The $250 recipe. Please pass it on to everyone you can possibly think of. I paid $250 for this. I don't want Neiman Marcus to ever get another penny off of this recipe."

The e-mail then provides the "Neiman Marcus Cookies" recipe, from two cups of butter right down to the three cups of chopped nuts.

Sound familiar? With good reason. According to the Urban Legends Reference Pages Web site (www.snopes.com), this chestnut has been around in various incarnations for at least 50 years. All versions are notable for their "revenge of the little guy" appeal.

In the 1960s, a similar tale circulated about the Waldorf-Astoria's Red Velvet Cake. As the story had it, a woman who had dined at the hotel asked for the recipe and got it along with a bill for $350. Her lawyer told her she had to pay, so she got even by distributing the recipe.

By the late 1970s, the tale revolved around Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. The rumor was so persistent that Debbi Fields felt it necessary to post signs in her stores denying that her cookie recipe was anything but a trade secret.

For the record, Dallas-based Neiman Marcus which does not accept Visa provides its cookie recipe on its Web site. Free of charge.

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