I am guessing that horse poop tastes worse that the fudge I bought at Shaw’s today but I’ve never had horse poop so I could be wrong. I was expecting your typical grocery store fudge but a little piece would be perfect to satisfy my sweet tooth. What I got was rubber; nasty, bland, with a distinct chemical taste rubber that wasn’t even sweet. It had a texture like melted gum. I had to brush my teeth. I did what I always do in these moments: I passed it off to my husband under the pretense that I just wanted to share because I love him. The Cop was immediately suspicious. He’s been here before. I giggled. The only thing that makes a crappy food experience better for me is conning him into eating it too because food misery loves company. Besides, it gives us lots to talk about. That’s how you keep a marriage strong, you know.
Sometime about 30 years ago, my great-grandmother, Nini, made what, according to every member of Satan’s* family, was the greatest fudge ever. Nini refused to write the recipe down and no one was allowed near her when she made it. It only existed in her memory, and in some respects her hands; which seemed able to make that fudge of their own accord. Like with so many of her generation, secret family recipes were more guarded than anything the government was up to at Area 51. No one but the recipe keeper had access to these family treasures; certainly, and most especially, not the rest of the family.
Age took Nini’s mind and the family fudge recipe with it. Food is a large part of family culture and recipes bond generations of families together. Over the years, I have often wondered how many family cultural treasures in our world have been lost to secrecy and the inevitable. I have heard stories of that fudge my entire life and while some have always complained of Nini’s stubbornness in not sharing it, I have always had a sad longing in my heart to try it. I am the youngest and the only one for whom the fudge is legend instead of memory.
I guess there are as many reasons to keep a recipe a closely guarded secret as there are secret family recipes. For example, I simply enjoy taunting my beloved Mother with my pink champagne cake. It drives her nuts and that makes me happy.** I cannot pretend to know Nini’s motivations but looking at Satan’s side of the family, I have an excellent guess: as long as she held that fudge recipe, everyone (particularly Satan) had to treat her very well and play nice if they wanted fudge. Every family tree has one of THOSE branches and no amount of pruning makes it, or its most disease-ridden part, go away. Then there was my Mother; Nini loved my Mother.
My Mother is a generous woman. She has spent her life working with and advocating for the developmentally disabled. She donates money and time to charitable causes. She packs up supplies to send to soldiers and she prays for those suffering natural disasters. She would do anything she could to help someone. Unless that someone happens to be me looking for the family Christmas cookie recipes.
Last August I moved 1,300 miles away from home. I did not want to leave my family, but I wanted out of Florida. The approaching holidays made me miss my family the most but all things considered, there was no way I would make it home. I really wanted Christmas cookies but I knew that the woman who gave me life would never ever send them to me. My Mother has a strict policy regarding the family Christmas cookies – you want them, you come and get them. She does not mail cookies. Ever. About Thanksgiving I started getting really desperate. Getting those recipes was not going to be easy. My favorite are the Seven Layer bars and I knew the recipe but I was antsy about making them on my own for the first time because I knew I would be upset if they did not taste exactly like my Mother’s. All I needed was a little reassurance that I was right. I had found half a dozen spritz cookie recipes online and they all have slight variations, but I really just wanted hers. What made me pick up that phone at the beginning of December was the cherry cookie recipe. I was jonesing for cherry cookies and I could not find anything on line that was remotely close. So I made the call.
She knew what I wanted and she was not feeling generous. The confirmation on the bars and the spritz cookies cost me my chocolate cake recipe AND my fudge frosting. Her cake was always good growing up, but I had stumbled upon something spectacular and she wanted it, not that I blame her. I started scoffing. She started scoffing. Confirmation on one recipe that I already knew and one very popular recipe that is easily found all over the Internet albeit with teeny tiny variations for my chocolate cake AND frosting?! That was not an even trade. She did not care. The “B” word started flying back and forth. Somewhere in the house, my long-suffering husband put his palms to his temples and held his head in a vain attempt to block out the oncoming meltdown while lamenting that it was happening again. I love him. One can probably guess what she wanted for the cherry cookies. Yep. Negotiations had gotten tough. Things took a very ugly turn when she demanded my pink champagne cake recipe. The. Gall. Of. That. Woman. I started shrieking. She started shrieking. I informed her that these negotiations were over and that my recipe vault was closed. “I know exactly what will open up your little recipe vault,” I heard quietly and nonchalantly across the line. She added a long, dramatic pause for effect. “I have Nini’s fudge recipe.”
It was only the third time in my life that I have been rendered utterly speechless. I have never heard her say anything more matter-of-factly in my life. I could see her in my mind; her hand over her mouth, shoulders shrugged, body shaking as she desperately tried not to ruin her big, wait-thirty-years-and-drop-a-bombshell moment with shrieks of laughter and hysterical fits of epic, near cackling proportions.
“Wha… WHAT?!?! YOU DO NOT YOU [insert-inappropriate-thing-to-call-your-Mother-here]!!!” She let a giggle slip. “THAT IS JUST A DIRTY THING TO DO TO ME!!!!” I knew she was silently, triumphantly gloating. I could feel it through the phone. Satisfaction at how well she had wound me up was oozing out of her pores. She knew that I knew and she fed off of my fury.
“I do and I have to go,” she taunted. I could hear the smile in her voice. The line went dead.
I frantically tried to call her back. She refused to answer. The nearest house is a half a mile away from us. Looking back, I hope their children were not home at the time. My one-beer a week husband, sitting front row for the most epic battle with my Mother since Scrabble 2009, was considering alcoholism. In the meantime, I was screaming something about how I was NOT going to leave a [insert-string-of-curses-here] message. “SHE DID THIS ON PURPOSE!!!!!!” I knew she was refusing to speak to me until the morrow. This is my Mother. This is how my Mother gets her kicks. My Mother is a domestic terrorist.
The next day she told the tale of how she ended up with the fudge recipe, but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, we bonded over a thirty-year old story from the side of the family we had both managed to survive. Negotiations continued. She finally agreed to give me the cherry cookie recipe but it cost me my sweet potato biscuit recipe. I didn’t mind though. My uncle absolutely loves them and since I am not there I wanted to make sure someone would make them come Thanksgiving. Sated from her antics the previous day, my beloved, ruthless Mother gave me Nini’s fudge recipe for free. No obvious strings attached. I like to think it’s because she understands that each secret family recipe has to have two keepers for it to truly be safe, but it’s probably because she loves me. She’s tricky, that Mommy.
I’ve had Nini’s fudge recipe since December 11th. I look at it almost every single day and I know it by heart, but I’ve never made it. Am I nervous that I’ll screw it up? Maybe a little. Am I afraid to compete with a legend? Sure. Am I afraid that it will not be as good as it is in my imagination? Absolutely. Am I paranoid that my Mother is secretly screwing with me? Seriously, have you met my Mother? I really do love her.
The close-second-to-horse-poop fudge was a sign. I am making Nini’s fudge tomorrow and it will be amazing. I hope…
*The Paternal Unit
**In my defense, she made me this way. I learned from the best.
I hope you also enjoy part II of this tale…
This piece originally appeared on my first blog attempt, The Honest Bite.