Wednesday, May 11, 2011

the secret ingredient

If you haven't visited The Treat Girl's blog, you must--she gives the best recipes with tips and hints for making them turn out perfect. Today her post reminded me of my most hard-won recipes. You see, my mother-in-law is Mr. D's favorite cook in the whole wide world. He loves her lasagna, potato salad, egg bake and loose meat (yes, they're from Iowa) sandwiches. There's no competing with his adoration, I had to learn how to play the game.

Happily, there's no direct competition between my MIL and I, she lives in Iowa, we're in Wisconsin, we see each other a few times a year, but if she lived closer, she and Mr. D would be like Marie and Raymond Barone--he's her favorite and she dotes on him. Distance keeps us fond of each other, I enjoy her company and appreciate that she lives too far away to meddle in our lives. We have a unique relationship as she lives within 5 minutes of 2 of her other kids and 40 minutes from the other--we're a vacation, a treat compared to the family she sees every week of her life.

For years Mr. D would eat his mom's cooking and say to me, "You need to learn how to make this!" And I'd ask for the recipe and she'd "forget" to give it. I don't particularly enjoy cooking, so I didn't push the issue, figuring I could mold Mr. D's taste buds to appreciate my efforts with what I liked to make.

In turn, I shared my recipes liberally with my MIL, and I know she enjoys making them and passing them along, but she simply refused to share her standards with me. Mr. D and I first thought she was being selfish, wanting to be the Only One making his favorite foods. He'd ask me if I got the recipe from her, I'd tell him no, she wouldn't share because we got busy or interrupted, he'd get on the phone and demand the recipe and she'd promise to send it along or provide an excuse. "I don't have it written down" she'd say. Or, "I just put in a pinch of this and some of that" as though potato salad were a magical spell. Once she came to visit and made potato salad for us while I stood by watching in the kitchen. She didn't use any measuring tools so I couldn't get a decent read on how much of anything she added.

We concluded her refusal to pass along recipes was subliminal so no one else could make them.

I said as much to her once, suggesting "it would be such a shame for our sons not to enjoy their Grandma's famous cooking in years to come. If you'd teach me, we could keep your legacy alive long after you're gone. We need to write these recipes down!" Still, it took years for her to hand over any semblance of a hint of how to make her lasagna or potato salad.

But she did. She handed over (begrudgingly, though she'd never admit it) her recipe for lasagna. I made it--following her instructions to the letter, even though I suspected 4 tablespoons of salt seemed excessive. We ate it and swallowed quarts of water for days afterward. I noted on the recipe "HALF the salt" and made it again. Still too salty. I scratched out my note and wrote "1 TBS SALT" and it came out just right. Did she give me the wrong recipe on purpose? I don't think so, but it still seemed suspicious. Though she does like her food salty... she's the only person I know who salts pizza before eating it...

Two years later we managed to pry her potato salad recipe out of her clenched fingertips. I made it at home again following the recipe to the letter and guess what? TOO DRY. I wrote in the margin, "DOUBLE the dressing" and tried to make it again. You can imagine it turned out just right after modifications.

Now we know we can eventually get Mr. D's old family favorites out of my MIL's Super Secret Files with persistence and persuasion. We'll get a version sabotaged so that she still remains the Only One who can make Mr. D happy--to her mind, that is. It's no surprise to make her recipe only to fail--I know I have to look for the trap and finesse my way around it--and write down what I fixed so that someday MY daughters-in-law can get the right recipe from my clenched fingertips. And I'll tell them about my MIL and how proud she was of making these things to please her son--and I'll laugh as I tell them how we extracted the recipes from her with finesse that could rival CIA interrogators.

Spill it, reader. Does your family have secret recipes? Or do you share fair and square?

24 comments:

  1. This one made me laugh out load. My MIL shares freely. (Of course, it helps that I live in her house now and have unlimited access to her recipe box.) When Ryan moved out of the house, she would send him postcards with his favorite recipes written on them. Our recipe box now looks much like hers.

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  2. God love my mother-in-law. She is the nicest mother-in-law but she can't cook. My mom isn't much better. We've created our only family recipes--but I won't sabotage them for the future generations!

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  3. My mil loves to share her recipes, but they go directly into the back of a drawer and Jim Never asks for them!

    My grandma makes The Best potato salad...Gram, I followed your recipe and it still doesn't taste like yours---Well did you splash in a little pickle juice? Seriously?!? Pickle Juice?!? Somethings I guess are better left secret ;)

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  4. We have none of this drama.

    I have my MIL's excellent lasagne and cheesecake recipies, but over time I've modified them.

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  5. I love to cook, and happily share any recipe people ask for. My mom and my MIL are excellent cooks and happy to share as well. And nowadays, with the internet? The world is my cookbook! But no, we don't have any special family recipes.

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  6. My MIL hated to cook, and my husband often tells me that he had no idea such-and-such a food could actually taste good. She was a bad cook but a great MIL (she passed away eight years ago).

    The tough part is cooking for my FIL --she trained him to like only the blandest foods. I always have to change my style of cooking when he visits us.

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  8. I had to laugh when you were talking about your MIL salting pizza. My mom does the same thing which horrifies her granddaughters! My MIL is not a great cook so my husband never asks for her recipe. My moms side of the family has some great cooks but so many of the recipes are approximate values with just knowing when it is just right. My grandma taught me to make cookies when I was young by adding flour to the tough. I am now teaching my girls and my niece the same thing.

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  9. My MIL loves to share her recipes - just not exactly the same as the way she makes hers. I have a blog post to this story ;)

    I was making one of "her" recipes for hers but it never "quite" turned out right--finally learned why ;(

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  10. Wow, that's some serious passive-aggressiveness you're dealing with.

    In our families, we share recipes fair and square.

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  11. Hahahaha!!! What a stinker! She totally sabotaged it! Funny.

    My mother and mother in law seriously do not write down recipes. I have to watch them over and over again to figure out how to make their favorites and I take my own notes. Luckily, though, they are very willing to help me. ;)

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  12. This was a hoot! 4 TABLESPOONS of salt - wow. But I beg of you, don't get me started on my MIL and cooking. I had to learn Jewish cooking all by myself. Making a dish would be followed with critical comments from my MIL after hours slaving in the kitchen.

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  13. HILARIOUS! She IS Marie Barone!

    I was lucky enough to get most of my Granny's recipes. She was an amazing cook. We used to talk food all the time. I compiled them all and made a cookbook of Granny's recipes for all my family members one Christmas. They're definitely treasures.

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  14. My deviled eggs never tasted like my MIL's--the ones my husband loves. She would tell me, I just add some Hellman's. I figured that was a brand of mayo from the Midwest. Turns out it's more like Miracle Whip. She knew.

    My sister salted pizza. I can't imagine it.

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  15. Funny! We don't keep our recipes secret, but the ability to make sensational canned fruit seems to have died with my grandmother.

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  16. My mother doesn't cook, so there are no recipes there. I have some from my father's sister. The rest of the family recipes are French-Canadian dishes that my husband and kids won't touch. These will die out in our family when I die.

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  17. I don't have that many recipes...but the ones I have are legend, & I will totally share!

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  18. We share. Hubs' grandmother made a German potato salad that has been passed down through the generations. When the cousins get together, they argue about who makes it the most like Grandma did!

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  19. Growing up, my mother's recipes were literally a line out of a Dr. Seuss book - "At our house, we open cans..." I was 15 before I knew that vegetables grew in the ground. Sadly my MIL does share her recipes, but they really aren't anything we'd want to keep. I get my cooking inspiration from the magical mystical interwebs, and links y'all provide!

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  20. My grandmother used to do the same thing. She'd give you a recipe you ask for but it was NEVER the same as the one she'd make. Never, ever. And now we all miss her Apple Cake recipe that she refused to share ;-(
    Happy cooking. jj

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  21. We're the opposite. My MIL follows recipes to a T. I don't have much use for them except as a starting point for the creative process. I find myself often answering requests for a recipe with the explanation that I don't really have one. (My girls occasionally follow me around the kitchen and take notes so there's at least an existing recipe of most of the family favorites now. The Boy cooks without recipes.) My MIL, on the other hand, is ecstatic whenever anyone requests a recipe she has prepared, and she gets out a copy immediately.

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  22. I solved this passive aggressive problem (both my MIL and her son, my husband model this trait to a "T") by telling my husband that if he wanted to taste his mother's cooking, then he could do it himself!

    His mother is a total wingnut when it comes to speaking her mind about anything-she will criticize (sometimes backhandedly, something bluntly) just about anything you do (me) and I finally had had it, and said to myself "enough".

    My husband now makes the Thanksgiving stuffing (I can't even mention making another version that I, and my 2 sons, might like to try on this holiday) his mother's scalloped potatoes for Christmas dinner, and her fried chicken . . . all meals I would not, or even think of, attempting myself.

    My husband has taken the joy out of my cooking, and making meals that my own sons might care to remember with nostalgia, when they are on their own someday. But? I do not have her (MIL) in shouting distance, she has lived 400 miles away during our entire marriage, and for that? I'M SUPREMELY THANKFUL.

    It's probably why we are not divorced (yet). LOL

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  23. haha, yeah are family shares recipes happily. Now some of us aren't so good about follow recipes or writing things down so it's more of a "well you can come watch me make it" kind of thing lol.

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  24. Thank you sooooooooo much for the shout out Miss...how sweet of you!! I was sooooo happy to get my mother in law's recipe for her coleslaw before she passed away...I am now officially in charge of making it for every occassion...and I even have the cut crystal bowl that she would serve it in too....it makes me so happy that everyone says it tastes just like hers!

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Spill it, reader.