My mother may have lacked for material things in her long life, but she was rich when it came to confidence.
A healthy sense of self-esteem was as natural as breathing for her. She held firm convictions about the star quality of her long-ago solo at the St. Gregory Church Mothers’ Club Variety Show. And two decades after the last bite of chicken a la king was digested, she delighted in remembering her “Three Coins in the Fountain” centerpiece for the annual Ladies’ Guild Luncheon. (She used Madame Alexander dolls with little coins glued to their palms, thanks for asking.)
It made sense, then, as she would be the first to tell you, that she was a marvelous cook. She insisted upon the superiority of the giant hunks of carrot she preferred for her Irish stew. And she would sniff at the fools offering finely chopped vegetables to their families.
Because she hated mustard, she used yellow food coloring to give her potato salad its golden hue. For years, I believed that yellow food coloring immediately elevated any recipe to the status of “gourmet.”
She saved her most vigorous back-patting for her pies. She insisted that no one on Earth could create a strawberry pie quite like hers. “Myyyyy strawberry pie,” she crowed before launching into another anecdote about her culinary acumen. Even better, her pecan pie, she told anyone still listening, hailed from her “Secret No-Fail Pecan Pie” recipe. After giving a lengthy speech about its highly covert nature, she would write out the recipe for a friend, using her best Palmer method penmanship. Some secret.
So, last Thanksgiving, when my oldest daughter requested pecan pie for our family gathering, I happily offered to make one. I didn’t have much pie-baking expertise, but 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 (or infamous, based on his current legal situation) vodka pie crust recipe. Then, crust in place, I turned to my mother’s “no fail” promise and began to mix the super-secret ingredients for “her” pecan pie. Sugar. Eggs. Vanilla. I confess, I was already a little suspicious as I reached into the cupboard for the dark Karo corn syrup. None of these ingredients struck me as particularly foolproof, let alone stealthy.
That’s when I glanced at the pecan pie recipe printed on the back of the blue Karo bottle.
And I found that each ingredient matched up perfectly with my mom’s recipe, except — There! There it was! — Mom called for a teaspoon of lemon juice, whereas those culinarily impaired dunderheads at Karo did not.
A teaspoon of lemon juice? That’s the only thing standing between me and imminent pie failure?
I made the pie, but with a troubled heart. I had unmasked her pecan pie secret, or lack thereof. As the pie baked (60 minutes, 350 degrees), 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 deserving of its own backlit trophy case in the Pie Hall of Fame.
That was my mother, a woman who, for all of her 78 years on Earth, happily convinced herself of her greatness, and then spread the love around to everyone else. In truth, her potato salad was always watery, no matter how garishly yellow. And her Irish stew required another 10 minutes of tableside chopping, just to get those oversized carrots down to size. But she was so much fun to share a meal with that no one really cared.
The pecan pie? It turned out fine. The “secret recipe” got tucked back into the pages of an old cookbook, perhaps to be unearthed next Thanksgiving, perhaps to be lost for years. For the moment, I decided to stop worrying about my mother’s self-deception and instead take joy in this unexpected interaction with someone who has been dead many years. Instead of crying over spilled lemon juice, I chose to savor the memory of her big-hearted love, which spread wide enough to include herself, always.
Then I smiled to picture some future grandchild of mine happening across the recipe one day and thinking she had found a priceless secret from an ancient relative. Just don’t read the back of the Karo bottle, kid. It will break your heart.
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis freelance writer. Her life is an open cookbook, and she has no secret recipes of her own. She blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.