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Secret Ingredient

By Frances Howard-Snyder-


My mother and sister and I are up early because it's summer and the sun is bright and there's nothing and everything to do today. The kitchen has red and white striped curtains and a little table where Mom and Abby and I sit eating cereal and drinking juice and making jokes about the animals on the cereal box and brainstorming about how to waste the day. Mom can drive us to the lake or we can play basketball or read books. The phone rings. My mother answers. Just a neighbor, sounds like.

Mom puts the phone down. "She loved it!" she says. With her long, dark hair and lean legs bare in shorts, she is a pretty woman, the sort of mother your friends envy. "Mrs. Goldstein said your cake was a lovely gesture, Abby. So kind to think of her after her cat died," she tells my little sister. "She says you're a really talented cook."

Ten-year-old Abby grins broadly. "Yes. I am. I'm the best cook in the house."

I roll my eyes. Abby is such a ditz. "Better than Mom, even?" I ask. My mom has taken a Cordon Bleu class and I think she's the best cook on our street, probably in our whole town.

"Well, best in the under-fourteen division," Abby says, meaning to include me because I am thirteen. She plays with one of her buttery curls.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that,” Mom puts in. “Kay is a good cook too. I love her stuffed mushrooms."

A shadow falls on the red and white floor: our dad in the doorway, blocking the light from the big window in the hallway, wearing a suit and tie and already a little damp in the 90-degree heat. "What's this? A dispute about who is the best cook? I think we should test that proposition." He pauses; we wait for his explanation. "We should have a competition to find out."

“Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes!” Abby always says things three times when she’s excited.

“How about Kay makes the main course, and Abby makes the dessert. Mom can be sous-chef and I’ll be judge.”

“Don’t make them compete,” Mom says. “Have them work together.”

“A competition is more interesting,” he says, patting each of us on a bare arm. “It brings out character.”

I go to the fridge for more juice. “What’s the prize?” I ask, hands on my hips.

He regards me through narrowed eyes. “Aside from my approval?”

“We have that, anyway,” Abby almost yells.

He rubs her head. “Of course, you do. Do you really need another prize? We’re a family. We do things for each other. I work forty hours a week to put a roof over your head and food in the pantry and gas in the car. Your mother works to turn food into meals and washes your clothes and keeps the kitchen tidy and whatever else she does with her days—out of love for you two. You should be willing to do something to contribute.”

“Gerald,” Mom says in her soft, cobwebby way. When Abby was a baby just starting to walk, they duct-taped foam onto the edges of the coffee-table. That’s how I see my mom—as foam rubber putting herself in the way of hard, sharp edges, trying to soften the blow.

“So, no prize?” I say, thinking that if the stakes are low maybe it won’t matter if I mess up my dish. But the stakes are never altogether low. My dad’s disappointment feels like all the oxygen leaving the room, scary but not something you can show other people to make them feel sorry for you—not like stripes on the back of your legs or a handprint on your cheek.

“Oh, there will be a prize, all right, something special. But I won’t tell you what. I don’t want you motivated by the thought of the prize. Good luck, Piglet! Good luck, Chickadee!” He kisses us both and picks up his briefcase and leaves for work at the insurance office on Main street of our small town. He’s gone but some of his shadow stays.

Mom keeps a set of cookbooks on a shelf in the kitchen. I take out Julia Child and Abby grabs The Joy of Cooking. We pore over them.

I wish I’d been assigned desserts. I think handling raw meat is gross and desserts are sweet. Everyone loves sweet things. “What do you think the prize will be?” I ask Abby, who’s sitting across from me at the kitchen table.

She shrugs. “Something nice. But it doesn’t matter. I expect you’ll win. I’m just going to enjoy making this dessert.”

I lower my book and regard my cute little sister. “You don’t care if you win?”

“I think it’s enough that I do a really good job making something Daddy loves.”

“Well, you should let me win then—because I do care.”

Abby puts a finger in her mouth, a babyish habit that might get germs in the dessert. “How would I do that?”

“I don’t know—put salt in the dessert instead of sugar,” I say.

Abby giggles and shakes her head rapidly. “You’re so silly. What are you making?”

“Coq au vin,” I say slowly, not sure of the pronunciation.

“What’s that?”

“Chicken with wine. How about you?”

Abby pages through her cookbook. “Hmm. No. No. Ah. Lemon meringue pie. That’ll be perfect!”

We ask our mom to take us to the Kroger’s downtown for ingredients. After some debate, she agrees to buy red wine for the coq au vin, because I let my face threaten a tantrum if she doesn’t and because—well, the alcohol will mostly be burned off by dinner time.

We cook side by side. Abby separates the eggs carefully and whips the whites with sugar into hard little peaks. She licks the beater, not quitting when I warn her of the dangers of eating raw eggs. I fry the onions and the chicken. Hot fat spits on my cheek when I add the wine. Abby scrapes her knuckle when she grates the lemon. We compare war wounds.

Our mother checks on us throughout the day—offering suggestions but staying carefully even-handed in her help. She never plays favorites. When I asked her one time who she loved most, she said she loved us both infinitely, not angry with me for asking, understanding that this was a matter a kid might care about. Like what exactly the prize would be.

“Wow! It’s warm in here,” she says at two o’ clock. She flips the switch on the black pyramid vent fan that hangs over the stove. The fan makes a heavy shushing noise and stirs the air without cooling it.

Abby puts her pie in the oven first because it needs to be cool by dinner time. My dish will take longer. So, I fetch a book and lean against the counter reading during the waiting periods.

Finally, I push the heavy copper pot into the oven. I’m pleased with the way the wine and the chicken fat have combined into a sweet, oily deliciousness. My dad will like it and will award me the prize. I’m three years older than Abby. He will expect me to win. And losing won’t be too hard on Abby. Just like with running and reading, she can console herself with the thought that she will catch up in a few years. And I can share the prize with her—if she’s not a pig about losing.

At 4:30, we both go upstairs to clean up, fix our hair, and put on dresses for our big contest. Abby wears baby blue satin. I wear my grey and brown striped cotton dress. I don’t want him to think I dressed up on purpose.

When our dad comes home from the office, pulling off his tie and tossing his jacket on a hook, Abby rushes to him. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, what do you think I made you? You’re going to love it. I know you are.”

He presses her tight against his chest and then pulls back, “You’re not trying to influence the judge, are you? You know that’s cheating.” He puts his hand on her head and ruffles her yellow hair.

“Daddy! I just styled my hair. Don’t mess it up.”

I come and hug my dad.

“Did you make me something nice, Piglet?”

“Oh, just a little something.” I want to lower his expectations so that he will be pleasantly surprised, even delighted.

He frowns, and then goes to the bathroom to wash his hands. Dinner must be ready by 5:30 and we cannot sit down until he’s seated at the head of the table. The dining room has reddish brown walls and a painting of something from the Bible – Joseph and multi-colored coat. A vase of dahlias in crimson, burgundy, and coral sits in the middle of the table.

Mom serves the chicken. “Boy, this smells delicious. Thank you, Kay.” She takes a bite. “And it tastes fabulous!”

The fried bread has soaked up the gravy, the wine has turned the chicken and onions black; the combination of salt and sour wine and heat has morphed into sweetness. Almost as good as when Mom made it. I enjoy the flavors and then look up to check on my dad, who is eating slowly, mostly the vegetables. When everyone else is done, he still has a lot of meat on his plate. “Are you going to finish, Dad?” I ask.

He smiles. “Gotta save room for dessert.”

Mom brings in the lemon meringue pie and Abby, fidgety with excitement, carries the dessert plates and forks.

“This is wonderful,” he says after the first bite. “The crust is perfect and the lemon curd – Mwow!” He kisses his fingers. “The lemon zest is a fantastic touch. Perfect for a hot day.”

Lemon zest was in the recipe, I want to say. When he asks for a second slice, I know I’ve lost the competition.Oh well, someone has to win, and someone has to lose, I think to myself. Like I said when we started, this is a stupid competition.

When the plates are cleared, I stand up. “I need to go feed my rabbits.”

“Wait. What about the competition?” Abby asks. Seems like she was kidding about not caring, or maybe she’s changed her mind. Whatever.

“All right,” he says leaning back. “What do you think, Susan? Which of our girls did a better job?”

“It was a tie?” Mom suggests hopefully.

“Nope. Try again.”

I twist in my seat. Why can’t it be a tie? Why can’t Mom be right for once?

“What do you think, Kay?” he asks. “Who do you think won?”

Is he asking which dish was tastier or is he asking me to guess what he’s going to say? “I liked the chicken better,” I say. “And it was a more complicated dish.”

“Nope. Wrong again. How about you, Chickadee. Who do you think won the prize?”

“Me!” shrieks Abby.

He smiles. “Go to my car. You know how to open the trunk, right? Your prize is in there.”

My fist clenches under the table, gripping the white linen cloth. I could pull it out fast, upsetting the glass water jug and the vase of dahlias. But that would mean I’m a bad sport, that I care about losing. I don’t want him to know I care. If only I could leave the table without anyone noticing, without my mom’s syrupy pity or my dad’s endless explanations.

“So, Kay. I can see that you are disappointed, but I want this to be a lesson for you.”

I heave a big sigh and start explaining that I really do not care.

“But I think you do care—a lot, about losing. The thing is, I don’t think you put a lot of care into the meal. It was too hot and heavy for a day like today, and it was very dry. After your mother’s cooking, it was practically inedible.”

I swallow and look at my mom. I enjoyed the chicken. Didn’t she enjoy it too?

“The thing is—what separated Abby’s dish from yours, is a secret ingredient that makes her a better cook and will make her a better wife and mother than you—unless you mend your ways.”

I am supposed to ask what that secret ingredient is but I would rather spit than speak.

“Love,” he says. For a second, I think he is calling me love, being tender, making it OK. But then after a long pause, he continues. “Love is the secret ingredient. Your sister cooks with love—thinking about exactly how to please me. Her love guides her to make a sacrifice of her time and attention to get it right. That’s why she won the prize.” He stares at me, waiting for me to react. I sit stock still, like a lump of inedible chicken.

“Oh, honey, I don’t think it was lack of love. Just lack of experience,” my mother puts in.

“Nope, love— as I say—pays attention, finds the way to do it right.”

“Thank you," Abby bursts into the room. “Thank you. Thank you! Daddy. What a perfect prize! A beautiful bicycle. And turquoise is my favorite color.” She climbs into Dad’s lap even though she is too big for such a move.

A bicycle is a big prize, more like a Christmas present. And turquoise is my favorite too.

“So, what will you do with a bike?” he asks Abby.

“I’m going to ride down the street with the wind in my hair. I’m going to take it to Maya’s house and make her jealous. I’m going to ride it to the ice-cream shop. We’ll have to get a lock and chain, so no-one steals it. I’ll ride it to the lake and to all that places that are too far to walk.”

“Shut, the fuck, up, Abby!” I scream, jumping to my feet.

“Kay!” Mom gasps, glancing at my dad.

Dad lifts Abby off his lap. “Why don’t you go outside and try out the bicycle, Sweetheart. Remember to wear your helmet.” Then he turns to me. “I’m going to overlook the foul language, Kay. I can see you’re upset. You’re not going to let this get to you, I hope? You’re not going to hurt your sister just because her dish was more worthy than yours?”

I stare at him, thinking about it, weighing the pros and cons. On the plus side, it would upset him to find his precious Abby with her head caved in, like a cake mixer with a broken motor, that no longer functioned, thrown in the trash.

On the minus side, Abby is just a dopey kid; she doesn’t deserve to die. And if she did die, I wouldn’t inherit the turquoise bicycle or our father’s love.


Frances Howard-Snyder is currently earning an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop and has published short stories in The Magnolia Review, Halfway down the Stairs, Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, and other places. She is working on a novel, Square Peg.

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