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The Tradition of the Secret Recipe

My particular friend Miss Lane and I have shared many, many conversations during our friendship, which has weathered perfect storms and endured more than half the length of our lives. The deepest confidence exists between us.

Yet, there is one secret she will never, ever impart to me: namely, the chocolate chip cookie recipe passed down to her from her ancestresses. I have tasted these cookies. They are the Food of Angels, the tops, the bee’s knees, the Platonic form of Cookie brought into material shape by the high priestess of Sweetness and Dough. If I were to own a cat and if by some miracle I were to persuade this cat to wear pajamas, these cookies would be the aforementioned garments (the reader is not encouraged to visualize this metaphor).

The knowledge of this secret cookie recipe Miss Lane has borne all her life—she is one of the few who remain, the faithful sentinels over long-cultivated mysteries. Sentinels and mysteries alike now are fading fast. With the advent of Google and Pinterest, Secret Recipes give way to a common knowledge (or at least, easily accessible information, which is a bird of a different feather) of the most fashionable cooking tricks and trends. I am thankful for Google and Pinterest; I find them advantageous often and to great extent. Simultaneously, however, I believe there is great reason to mourn the loss of certain aspects of culinary esotericism.

The Generosity of Secret Recipes

The idea of a Secret Recipe presupposes a habit of generosity. There is no amusement whatsoever in keeping a recipe shrouded in tantalizing mystery if one intends to eat all the resulting delicacy one’s self. The express purpose of the Secret Recipe is to astonish a neighbor with a scrumptious dish and politely to refuse to give him or her the seemingly magical formula, as demonstrated in the following dialogue:

Mrs. Albert, answering a ring of the doorbell. Hello, Mrs. Benedict, how delightful to see you! Please, come in and have some pumpkin bread.

MrsBenedict, upon tasting said pumpkin bread. Why, this is positively delectable, Mrs. Albert! You must give me your recipe, as it is just the sort of thing my sister, Mrs. Carrington, would adore.

Mrs. Albert, with a superior yet regretful smile. Oh, I’m terribly sorry, but it’s an ancient family recipe, and I took a solemn vow on my thirteenth birthday never to share it with another living soul.

MrsBenedict is slightly crestfallen, but out of respect for Mrs. Albert’s family does not press the issue. Another slice of pumpkin bread restores her spirits to buoyancy.

Note that Mrs. Albert reserves for herself the pleasure of sharing this particular treat. Considered in a certain light, this is selfish: Surely, some might say, she should allow Mrs. Benedict to experience the delight of supplying a friend with the same exceptionally tasty morsel. This contention undermines the structure of polite society, and those who persist in such absurdities are justly cast out of the kitchen, to gnash their teeth in the drawing room.

It would be quite a different matter if Mrs. Benedict had come starving to Mrs. Albert and begged for instruction in the ways of food preparation, and the only possible combination of the ingredients at her disposal accorded with Mrs. Albert’s family recipe. As Mrs. Benedict, we presume, is no less capable than Mrs. Albert to supply herself with essential nutrition, it is appropriate that Mrs. Albert preserve the mystery with which she was entrusted. It is selfish only in the sense that competing at croquet with the object of victory is selfish. To be sure, competing at croquet can be selfish, but one would hope that Mrs. Albert’s mother taught her better. Like croquet, the game of the Secret Recipe is best played by individuals who wish to improve their own skill, and share amusement and sporting kinship with others.

Family Solidarity Nourished by Clandestine Cooking

The Secret Recipe by nature encourages individual generosity; by function it encourages societal hospitality. If Mrs. Albert keeps her secrets, so also may Mrs. Benedict, and indeed Mrs. Carrington and all her friends. When privileged with a taste of a Secret Recipe, reciprocation is of course the courteous response; thereby good feelings are built up. And as much as the Secret Recipe encourages goodwill with the uninitiated, much more does it bind together the keepers of the mystery—whether these be contemporaneous or divided by time and generations. Family solidarity blossoms when nourished with the sweet waters of clandestine cooking.

With an eye toward such strength of heritage for my own descendants, I have entered into negotiations with my friend Miss Lane to arrange marriage between my firstborn son (should I marry and bear said son) and an heiress to the knowledge of the Food of Angels (should Miss Lane marry and bear a daughter). The possibility of my daughter-in-law supplying me with cookies in my old age, of course, provides no small incentive. I cannot imagine but that soon, more conscientious members of society will also recognize the portends of near-inevitable destruction resulting from the loss of the tradition of the Secret Recipe and join me in an endeavor for its recovery.

Emily Maxson

Author: Emily Maxson

Emily Maxson graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in History and an addiction to research. Although her teaching career has paused to make way for her upcoming wedding, she maintains interests in education, theology, and literature. Her favorite authors include Cornelius Van Til, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot, and Geerhardus Vos.

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