Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Still a secret

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and I pulled out my mom's "secret" recipe today.  Thought it might be a good time to revisit my in-depth expose of three years ago.


Secret Recipe

Those aren't tears that I spilled on the recipe. It's just Karo syrup.

My mother lacked for many things in her life, especially material ones, but self confidence was never among them. Robust self-regard was as natural as breathing for Katherine Clifford Kendrick. She held firm convictions about the star quality of her solo at the St. Gregory Church Mothers’ Club Variety Show (proffering a clipping from the local paper whenever the occasion arose, as it often seemed to). Decades after the last bite of chicken a la king had been eaten, she delighted in remembering her “Three Coins in the Fountain” centerpiece for the annual Ladies’ Guild Luncheon. (She had used Madame Alexander dolls with little coins glued to their palms, thanks for asking.)

It only made sense that, as she would be the first to tell you, she was a marvelous cook. She would describe the nuances of the giant pieces of carrot in her Irish stew, sniffing at those chumps who offered finely chopped carrots chips to their families. Because she hated mustard (to ask her about it was to receive a wee bit more info than was really pertinent to the question at hand), she insisted on using yellow food coloring in her potato salad. I believed for years that adding yellow food coloring to any recipe immediately elevated it to the status of “gourmet.”

She swore by her pies. They weren’t just good, they were unique. No one could create a strawberry like hers. “Myyyyy strawberry pie” was the leadoff of the story, as if she and the pastry had been romantically outed in Jerry Berger’s column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her pecan version, she told anyone who was still listening, was from "My Secret No-Fail Pecan Pie Recipe.” Once she'd finished a lengthy discussion of its secret nature, she would write out the recipe for a friend, using her best Palmer method penmanship. Some secret.

When you raise a child in this way, several things can happen. In my case, it was a strong veer in the opposite direction. I decided to shut down the p.r. firm and live a life without press clippings or superlatives. I function under few delusions about the superiority of my talent, my decorating skill or my cooking prowess. I long ago decided that the only thing that matters in motherhood is Showing Up, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for 17 years. So far, the reviews have been adequate.

So, when the great Thanksgiving Teenaged Cook-Off was being planned at our house this past week (Three adults, 11 kids aged 21-and-under), and someone asked for pie, preferably one that featured pecans, I volunteered. Hey, I had a secret recipe. And it could not fail.

I will admit that I first turned to alcohol.

For the crust, that is. I used Christopher Kimball’s famed vodka pie crust recipe.  And then, crust in place, I turned to my mother’s “no fail” promise and began to mix the super-secret ingredients. Sugar. Eggs. Vanilla. When I reached into the cupboard for the dark Karo corn syrup, I’ll admit I was already a little bit suspicious. Nothing I’d been doing so far had struck me as very foolproof, or very stealthy. So I read the pecan pie recipe on the back of the blue bottle. Each ingredient matched up exactly with the one from my recipe, except – There! There it was! --  she called for one teaspoon of lemon juice, and those corporate tools at the Karo corporation did not. 

A teaspoon of lemon juice?  That’s the only thing standing between me and imminent pie failure?

Oh mom.

I made the pie, but with trepidation.  I had unmasked her secret, or lack thereof.  As it baked (60 minutes at 350 degrees, when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, you’re done), I thought about how someone could copy a recipe from the back of a bottle, add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and then somehow convince herself, over the years,  that she had created something that deserved its own Trophy Case in the Pie Hall of Fame. 

That was my mother, a woman who convinced herself more than she ever swayed anyone else, but who remained unfailingly upbeat. In truth, her potato salad was always watery, no matter how garishly yellow it was. And her Irish Stew required another ten minutes of work with the table knife, just to chop up all those oversized carrots.

The pie turned out fine. The recipe page went back in my cookbook folder. I smiled to picture some grandkid getting hold of it one day, thinking she really had a priceless secret recipe from the past.

Just don’t read the back of the Karo bottle, kid. It will break your heart.