Last week after my holiday rant, my dear friend eee asked me for my orange cranberry sauce recipe. I have been more than a little slow in giving it to her. It’s not because I don’t like to share, but rather it is located in the section of my cookbook entitled Family Favorites. What’s the big deal, you may be wondering? Well, most of the recipes in this section, in addition to their myriad of ingredients, oven temperatures and mixing instructions also have a Top Secret listing.
You may be wondering what in the hell catorgorizes something as a Top Secret recipe. Until I met my husband, I thought the only thing I needed this sort of clearance for was a career with the government. That’s until I first tasted the toffee.
The toffee changed everything. Up until this point in my life, I’d always thought recipes were something housewives traded like baseball cards. Even though my mother wasn’t much of a cook she had this fantastic box with hundreds of recipe cards. Each one had a glorious picture of some appetizingly perfect looking dish with what claimed to be simple, easy-to-follow directions on the back. If my mom had these dishes at the tips of her fingers I imagined everyone else did as well.
Recipes weren’t cherished in my family. If someone liked something they ate, they asked for the recipe and it was given. People copied recipes from magazines and even off the boxes of prepackaged food like Saltines and whipped up a batch. If they liked it, they scribbled it into a cookbook of their own or clipped it and stuck it between the pages of a magazine. If they didn’t, they tossed it away.
My mother-in-law, however, does not subscribe to this selfless sharing of delictable dishes. My husband and I had been dating for just over 9 months when he decided he wanted to impress my family by making them toffee. He’d tried to make it for me on our first date, but it hadn’t turned out quite right. Though it was tasty, he reasoned he must have missed something, so he called his mom to get directions. She wasn’t home, so he left a message. While making dinner I realized we were missing something, so he offered to pop over to the store and get it. During his absence his mom called with the recipe information. I offered to take it down for her and there was a pause. Not a brief, “I’m catching my breathe” sort of pause, but a long, drawn out, pregnant sort of pause that let me know with no confusion that she didn’t want to give the recipe to me. To keep her from having to admit she didn’t trust me with the vital recipe, I told her I didn’t have anything to write with and that I’d have my husband call her back later.
When he arrived home I told him to call home and then waited (and watched) as he wrote down the recipe. The call completed, I told him of her reluctance to share. According to him it was nothing personal exactly. Apparently she’d made this toffee for a party many, many years ago and a friend had loved it so much she asked for the recipe. My mother-in-law handed it over without a second thought only to see it appear several months later in a local cookbook attributed to her friend. She was more than a little hurt.
This incident, combined with too many parties where everyone showed up with the same dish* put the kibosh on recipe sharing as far as she was concerned. Her little black recipe book was closed to all but the most intimate family members. Anytime she made a dish someone raved about, she simply smiled, said “thank you,” and told them it was a family secret if they asked for the recipe. Apparently she was afraid that her son’s very serious, nearly live in girlfriend** would do the same, hence why she wouldn’t devulge the toffee ingredients via the phone.
I was annoyed, but let it go. I wasn’t much of a cook then so it really didn’t matter to me. I figured it was just a flukey thing partial to my mother-in-law.
Several months later I was at my sister-in-law’s house (my husband’s brother and his sister-in-law). They made a huge dish of some sort of chowder and my husband devoured two bowls. He kept raving about how much he loved the stuff, so I asked her for the recipe. She looked at me as if I’d asked for her first born and said, “Oh, that recipe’s secret. We can’t give it to you. We had to trade the toffee recipe for it.” WHAT???? How on earth could there be two people not blood related to each other in my life who were both so clandestine about recipes that they did not even create?
Now, I should point out here that I don’t travel in the same circles as my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law. There was no danger of me showing up to any of their parties with their dishes. If I was to lay claim to the recipes and brag to my friends, it’s not like any of them would care (or my in-laws would know). And, while I may now like to look at cooking magazines, I’m so not the kind of girl to try to publish someone else’s recipe using my name. I teach English. I know what plagarism is. All I wanted was to make my boyfriend some food he actually liked.
A few years later, not long before my husband and I made it official, we were visiting my in-laws. I mentioned that I’d asked my sister-in-law for the chowder recipe but she said no. My mother-in-law couldn’t believe it. Apparently she didn’t think it rated Top Secret status either. Knowing I shouldn’t, but still a bit cheesed off at having been denied it in the first place, I offered further fuel to the fire. I mentioned she’d traded away the sacred toffee recipe to get it. A horrified look crossed her face as she rose, crossed the room, got out her little black recipe book and handed it to me. She told me I could copy down any recipe I wanted from it and even pointed out exactly where the chowder recipe was. To this day I have never submitted it to any magazines, or in truth ever actually made it. I found another chowder recipe in one of my cooking magazines and tried it instead. It’s much better and I didn’t have to bargain my sould for it.
*This is her claim. I’m not sure I truly believe that everyone showed up to all their parties bearing tupperware containers of English toffee.
**The first and only serious girlfriend he’d ever had or brought home to meet his parents I might add.