No matter what my father cooked, it always had a secret ingredient.
“Guess the secret ingredient,” he would say, hands on hips with a cocky look on his face. “C’mon. What’s in the eggs?”
“Uh, cheese?” Always a safe guess.
I would take another exploratory bite, vamping for time. At least my rye toast would be pure and unadulterated, wouldn’t it? I took a thoughtful bite.
“Ewwww! Dad, what did you put on the toast?”
“Aha!” he said. “Guess!”
All I wanted to do was eat breakfast and go to school. Or if it was Sunday, finish the comics.
Finally, “Give up?”
I would nod weakly with my toast frozen midway to my mouth. I wouldn’t take another bite until my suspicions were confirmed.
“It’s garlic! I took a clove of garlic and smashed it a little and rubbed it on your toast. Knuble! Nothing better, right? It’ll put hair on your chest!”
This was his little joke, but after a certain point, a young girl does not wish to discuss these things with her father, joke or no joke.
Back to the eggs. The secret ingredient? I gave up.
I hated sour cream, whether it was in my food, on my food or near my food. I don’t think he ever gave up hoping one day I would wake up and love it the way he did. And he loved it a lot—on blintzes, latkes, borscht and who knows what else.
At least he didn’t put sour cream in the pancakes. He added cottage cheese instead. And sometimes cinnamon and nutmeg, or bananas and walnuts – or maybe strawberries and vanilla.
On cold mornings we might have oatmeal or cream of wheat, and you never knew what the secret ingredient might be. I’m sure this presented a real challenge to my dad; there are only so many ways to trick out oatmeal.
When I got sick and had a fever, he would make a concoction with warm milk, spices and a secret ingredient that made me sleepy. He told me it was something his mother used to make for him. I sipped slowly from a big mug and sank back into the pillows, already half asleep. That was some good stuff. It tasted a lot like the boozy Tom and Jerry recipe my husband mixes up on Christmas Eve.
When my youngest was little, we tried everything to get him to try new foods. I noticed that he was a lot less fussy when his babysitter fed him, and I asked her about it. Turns out she was putting applesauce in everything. He ate fish sticks by the ton until he realized that they were “fish” and he didn’t like fish. He moved on to macaroni and cheese, then to any kind of pasta. He never met a vegetable he liked, although I got him to eat carrot cake a few times until he heard that there were carrots in it.
But I never tried to trick him, and finally figured that he was going to eat what he wanted and if that meant peanut butter and jelly lunches for 6,000 days in a row, so be it. He once told me, with his balled up fists on his hips, that “What I like is what I like.” That was hard to argue with, and I wish I had thought of it when I was his age.
My kids love the way I make French toast. I put in a little vanilla, and a little cinnamon—nothing out of the ordinary. A special Christmas morning tradition in our Judeo-Christian household is to have my French toast made with challah and eggnog. Once a year, I figure, it won’t kill us. Whenever I make it, they say it tastes better than anyone else’s. Why?
Just like my father, I get a great deal of pleasure out of making simple things a little special. I do it with love.
That’s the only secret ingredient.