Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Secret recipes and the secret of recipes

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Item number one: My old friend Jay came to visit a few days ago, brought the most delicious chocolate chip cookies, and sent me the recipe. It’s from Neiman Marcus, but it’s a real recipe for really wonderful cookies.

(If you’ve never heard the story--which is total urban myth--it involves a woman eating at the restaurant in Neiman Marcus, loving the chocolate chip cookies so much she asks for the recipe, only to be billed $250 or some such outrageous sum for it. Story is a complete fabrication.)

Item number two: In today’s New York Times Michelle Slatalla has a piece on neighbors trying to outdo each other with secret recipes for stuffed cabbage.

The confluence of those two items got me thinking about the whole idea of the secret recipe. Not a pretty picture. For two reasons.

Take one: Food is a basic need and also love made concrete. It’s nurturing, caring, the one indispensable thing we can offer someone else in true generosity. So the whole idea of withholding a recipe is so stunningly miserly when you think about it that it’s really not so far removed from bread lines and continents of starving children. The smallness of begrudging someone food--maybe especially delicious food--has implications of a world view that goes way beyond our little recipe files.

Take two: Just who is it who is usually seen as hoarding those secret recipes--or maybe giving out the recipe but with one vital ingredient missing? Women. Women whose place was so firmly rooted next to the stove that the secret recipe can be a stand-in for the miniscule power they had, the perceived value of what they had to offer in the world. Tiny scraps of yellowed paper. Tiny aspirations, truncated possibilities.

So, thank you to my friend Jay and to Neiman Marcus for the cookie recipe. Thank you, Marcie, for carrot pudding,; Caryl Kahn for peach pie; Fran for bread pudding and another Fran for Tuscan bread soup; my late neighbor Dan for country stew; my aunt Sara, gone for decades, whose noodle pudding recipe lives on and has now evolved to include one new ingredient suggested by my granddaughter. My recipe file is filled not only with foods, but with people, with their history, and with my ties to them. My thanks to you all: your generosity continues to sustain me.

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