Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weekend Cooking: The Secret Ingredient by M.F.K. Fisher

For today's Weekend Cooking, I pulled out Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Wine, and read "The Secret Ingredient" by M.F.K. Fisher. This essay, at the beginning of the "Dining In" section, begins:

"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.


  1. I am in love with MFK Fisher. I have read pretty much all she wrote. I remember this essay.

    My first exposure to this kind of person was when I was in high school. My freind's mother made a cake that had Coke (as in soda!) in it. I loved it, so my mom asked for the recipe. We tried it twice and the cake failed both times. That's when my mom told me about people who leave out a key ingredient or change the measures.

    About two decades later, I found a coke cake recipe -- but now it's too sweet for me. Sad that some people have to be that way.

  2. For me, even when a person who has a knack for cooking gives you the true recipe, it just doesn't come out the same anyway! But I had two grandmothers who were great cooks, but neither one used measurements - it was a "by feel" kind of thing. So there is no way I could ever approximate their food even if they told me all the facts!

  3. I have had a desire to read MFK Fisher for several months now. I remember reading a few of her essays back when I first got married - and was introduced to the world of gourmet food.

    I can't imagine how wonderful your grandfather's homemade wine must have been!

  4. My grandmother is the same way with her homemade noodles! They are always a request at every holiday and I think she likes being the only one who can make them :)

  5. What a great post...Baked Italian Fish just sounds delicious! I'm going to have to check this book out, too...I've heard good things.

  6. I so enjoyed reading your post. What a sweet and wonderful memory!

  7. I love to make lemon squares and had given the recipe to my friend several times. she would follow it and it never turned out. So I always took it when I visited her. When she passed away I took a large tray to the church to be served with the coffee afterward and I cried when i saw them on the table and thought of my friend trying to make them. I never understood how her's didn't turn out the same as mine..

  8. I loved reading this post. Such cooks exist in my experience too. My mother-in-law was one. She was a wonderful cook but would not share her recipes, except for one. That was a cookie recipe that was my husband's favorite. I think she was just tired of making it.

    I, too, love MFK Fisher. I just check out The Gastronomically Me from the library and am looking forward to reading it. I like the sound of your book o essays. I'll have to look for that.

  9. I don't think I know anyone like that but I think that some recipes just don't translate well. One person's dash is not another's.

  10. I've never, ever understood being secretive about recipes. To me food is for sharing, and if someone likes something enough to ask for the recipe, it is a tribute to the cook and the dish. Maybe people were afraid that they would be outdone in the kitchen. Who knows? I've often wondered how Fisher stayed so da*# thin, loving food the way she did. I wonder if she had an eating disorder? I don't know much about her, but have read a few pieces by her over the years.

  11. Oh, and I so love the 'joanna'

  12. I've never read MFK Fisher but the stories sound great and the food you talked about...yum!

  13. Beth F - This is the first I've read of MFK Fisher (why??), but I'm happy there are so many of her essays in this collection.
    I remember when a friend of mine's mother made a 'Coke cake' - I loved it!

    Rhapsody - My grandmother cooked like that, too... it was next to impossible to get a written recipe! My mother and aunt used to take notes as she cooked, but it just wasn't the same.

    Molly - My grandfather (an Italian immigrant) used to have huge oak barrels in the cellar. By the time I was old enough to actually drink wine, he wasn't making it any more. But I do remember those the tastes I had fondly!

    Stacybuckeye - My grandmother, too! There are still so many things she made that none of us have ever been able to master... but we still keep trying!

    Bermudaonion - This is just a wonderful collection of food writing.

    Jill - That Italian Baked Fish was covered with diced tomatoes, herbs, onion & peppers... and who knows what else. It was delicious!

    Book Psmith - This wasn't the post I set out to write, but it was all I could think about after reading the essay.

  14. Heather - What a lovely story! My neighbor makes the best lemon squares. I have her recipe, but it still doesn't taste the same.

    Margot - Thank you! I think almost everyone must have a cook like that in their life. I haven't read MFK Fisher before - I've really missed out! Looking forward to her other essays in this collection.

    Chris - Exactly! I'm a pharmacist by training and that has always effected my cooking - I NEED an exact recipe, lol!

    Nan - That's how I've always felt about food and recipes, too. We all loved Tina, but I could never understand 'holding back' an ingredient or two when sharing a recipe. She was one of a kind in so many ways!

    Staci - I hadn't read MFK Fisher before, but now I'm going straight to her other essays in the collection. As for the food...I doubt I'll ever have an eggplant parm as good as Tina's.

  15. Sounds like such a fun book :-) I love this weekend cooking thing!

  16. Marie - This is an excellent collection - just what you'd expect from The New Yorker! I'm really enjoying this Saturday feature, too.


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