"It is common in small communities, especially if they are far from large towns, for one person or another to become known for a special power... At present, I myself, living less than a hundred miles from a big city and with about two thousand other townspeople, do not know of any witches or warlocks, but there are several people who seem to have an uncanny power over food. They manage to keep to themselves whatever it is that makes their creations subtly and definitely better than any attempts to approximate them. They are willing to make... clowns of themselves to protect their recipes."
The author goes on to describe one such person - Berite Bastalizzo. When Bertie made food for her friends or neighbors, she would include specific instruction on everything from how long to let the food "rest", suggested accompaniments, and even the type of bowl or tray to serve it on. But one thing Bertie would not share was her recipe. Oh, she may have given some instruction on how her dish could be recreated, but it was never the same. Her semi-literate scribbles always seemed vague or lacking. Occasionally, there was even an outright error.
Fisher muses, "I really cannot believe that a good cook will distort a prideful recipe."
Well, I can! The entire essay could have been about mother's friend Tina - also an Italian woman - who spoke with a heavy accent and loved to prepare food for her friends... but would not share her recipes.
Baked Italian Fish was one of her specialties. Tina and her husband loved to fish. Following one of their early morning expeditions, we would often get a late afternoon phone call. "I gotta some feesh for you. I'ma comin' now." What a treat!
Tina's Chicken Riggies were to die for, but it was a well-known fact the recipe she shared was not the recipe she used. Something was purposefully omitted.
Tina knew my particular favorite was her Eggplant Parmesan. She wouldn't share that recipe either but often, when she made it for her own family, she would bring my mother a small plate the following day. "I know JoAnna likes this one."
Fisher wrote this essay in 1968, just a few years before Tina started bringing me her Eggplant Parmesan. Bertie and Tina are both gone now. Maybe that "secret ingredient" mentality is gone, too. Maybe it was a quality particular to Italian immigrants. Either way, the essay made me wish for a glass of my grandfather's homemade wine so I could raise a toast to Tina.
Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Visit her blog for links to more Weekend Cooking Posts.