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Secret Recipe

Third-Place Winner – 2009 Fiction Contest

Nobody could figure out why the Colonel's wife tried to beat the train.

When Dad came home that night he said it was a terrible waste of a '55 Chevy Bel Air, and, even with a V-8 engine, she should have known better.

When he took off his service-issue sunglasses and laid them next to his hat, he said something about women driving automobiles they didn't understand. Mom's fingers fluttered as she touched her mouth and asked with extra breaths if maybe the Colonel's wife didn't see the sign.

Kids on the playground didn't have to see the sign. They stopped when they heard the whistle of the Union Pacific, every day right before noon; that whistle was the dinner bell and the end of recess and the cue for Mom's serial, As the Days Go By. Nobody could believe the Colonel's wife didn't hear it. 

Dad curled his upper lip over his teeth so his mustache scraped his chin when he said it was the ambulance from the base hospital that was dispatched to the scene. The rescue crew drove through the front gates, sirens whirring, without any idea they'd be giving the training manual's condolence speech to their own C.O. later that day. Two sergeants, a second lieutenant, and a private, with his arm leaning out of the window of the driver's side, made the turn past the guard shack and headed down the hill thinking maybe it was a drill. Really, the rescue crew only rescued a handbag, and a shoe, and a white silk glove with yellow flowers at the wrist with the wrist still inside.

Dad said the Colonel never should have bought her that car, with its hooded headlights and two-tone aqua interior, its tinted glass and power convertible top. He said there wasn't much left of the Chevy. His upper lip curled again, and he mumbled that there wasn't much left of the Colonel's wife either.

The crinolines under Mom's skirt always swished like fan blades spinning when she walked really fast. They swished loudly just then as she walked across the kitchen and reached for the canister of flour.

That summer I was learning how to make pie crust. I wrapped my mom's tea-stained apron around my waist, tying a bow in the wrinkled red strings so the ends hung down by the appliquéd strawberries on one side. Button-hole stitches of embroidery outlined the red calico print, like lines in a coloring book. Crumbs of butter and flour stuck to the black thread as I wiped my hands down my front and tried to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin. Flies circled the kitchen, buzzing through the heavy Texas afternoon, landing only to lick sugar and cherry juice off the wooden cutting boards. Every time I shooed them, bits of dough and clouds of flour spread across the vinyl-topped counters. The flies didn't seem to mind.

"Honey, remember you roll from the middle, out towards the edges." My mother took the rolling pin, dusted my lump of dough with flour, and moved lightly over the crust, like a hummingbird darting back and forth between blossoms. Bending gently at her girdled waist, she transformed flour and shortening from a ragged treasure map to a round silky sheet. "You see?" she tutored. "Nice and even, back and forth, always from the middle, just like that." Her incantation kept time with the click of the pin and the creak of the floor as she shifted her weight from square-heeled black leather shoes to the counter top.

I dug my hand into the flour canister and coated the rolling pin again, picking off bits of dough that still clung to my fingertips. "I can't do it like you do." I gnawed sticky pieces of crust off my hands. "Well of course not, sweetheart. Not yet." Mom opened the heavy enamel oven door and held her hand over the middle rack to check the baking temperature. "That's why you need to practice."

I saw my face bunch up in the polished stainless steel of the canister, elongated like a funny mirror at the circus. "Jenny Meyer's mom buys pies at the bakery."

"Yes." Mom measured the word as she leveled off a porcelain teacup full of sugar. Mrs. Meyer was one of the civilian secretaries on base. Her big bangle earrings always matched her chunky broaches and necklaces, and her lipstick was much darker than the kind other moms wore.

"Do you suppose those pies taste as good as homemade?"


"Would you be happy giving one of those bakery pies to the neighbors, or bringing one to church for coffee hour?"


"Alright then. We must all do what we can," she said. "And we can do this." Mom whisked three spoonfuls of cornstarch with some water from the tap, and folded the creamy white paste into the bowl of pitted cherries, bobbing in their own juice. She stirred until the syrup turned a uniform pink, like cinnamon taffy. Then hummingbird-quick, she looked over her shoulder toward the swinging door to the kitchen. With practiced hands, Mom drew a bottle of vanilla from behind a mason jar of mincemeat, on the top shelf of the cupboard. She made the vanilla flavoring herself, with two long, shriveled beans ordered special at the commissary, shipped in from Madagascar, and enough Southern Comfort to fill up the bottle. Pulling on the cork, Mom sniffed the mouth of the jar to make sure it had "set" long enough to infuse the alcohol with the warm spice of vanilla oil.

"If it turns out alright, I thought it would be nice if you brought your pie to the Colonel. And his son, Avery." Avery was one grade ahead of me in school, and, until his mother, the Colonel's wife, got hit by the train, I was sure he'd never tasted a homemade pie in his life. Avery came to school with Hershey bars in his lunch, and sandwiches from the deli downtown. Or his pockets were stuffed with wadded dollar bills to spend in the cafeteria. After the Union Pacific hit that Chevy Bel Air, though, pie was probably all he ate for a week--just like the base families who had babies or got bad news from overseas.

Per their charter, as soon as they heard, every member of the Base Ladies Auxiliary sliced up whatever fresh fruit was sitting in the pantry, took half a pound of butter out of the icebox, and pre-heated the oven. Two hours after Dad set his captain's cap down and told her about the glove and the ambulance and the unheard whistle, Mom took a rhubarb-raspberry pie over to the Colonel's house. When no one answered the door, she left it on the porch, wrapped in a flour-sack tea towel. The next morning when she drove by to make sure the pie had gotten inside there were four other silver pie plates brimming with lattice-top crusts, apples and peaches, sitting next to the milk box and under the porch swing.

There were lots of pies at the funeral, too. The mess hall opened early so we could all gather after the service to murmur our condolences over ham salad sandwiches and deviled eggs with flecks of paprika on top. At one end of the long, metal hall was the Colonel with Avery next to him, shaking hands with all his officers and mouthing "thanks very much" in the gray, gravelly voice that takes all the other sentences away. At the opposite end of the hall, two service-issue mess tables were covered with crisp cotton tablecloths edged in rosy prints and blue rickrack, courtesy of the Base Ladies Auxiliary. A soda fountain glass held dozens of forks to scoop up wedges of pie, more kinds than I'd ever seen in one place, even at the Baptist spring bazaar.

I didn't think Avery wanted any more pie. And I didn't think my crust could measure up to the flaky, thin pastry he'd been eating for weeks. But I pulled the cracked edges of the dough gently up toward the pin, rolled it up and over, and on top of itself, wiping off the extra layers of flour, and then unrolled the crust on the dented, tin pie pan Mom had learned on. I slowly poured the ruby-red fruit soup, like jelly that hadn't jelled yet, into the pie shell. Mom cut lattice strips out of the rectangle of dough she'd rolled out on the counter, and I filled a china saucer with water to make the strips stick to the edges. Weaving the pieces over and under, her hands moved like the machinery of a loom, pinching the dough along the rim to make perfect ridges. When she was finished, she pushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and leaned against the cupboards and smiled. "Now you make an egg wash, and mix up some cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on top."

Mom gave the hummingbird look over her shoulder, then tipped up the vanilla bottle for a moment before she put in the cork and hid it behind last year's preserves.

"Go on up there and knock." Mom pulled the emergency brake on the Dodge up as far as it would go, and I balanced the Colonel's pie on one hand as I pushed the car door open towards the curb. I straightened the stripes of my plaid skirt and started up the stairs of the porch, listening to faint radio voices coming through the screen door. My pale reflection was like a ghost in the living room window: one knee sock drooped, and the bow of my grosgrain hair ribbon slipped down toward my right ear. But I couldn't take my hands from under the pie tin, still warm from the oven and sticky on the side where the cherry filling had bubbled over the edge. Avery heard me coming and pressed his palms against the metal mesh of the door.

"Hi," I said, after I wiped my cherryfilling- sticky hand on the side of my dress, startled that he was there before I even knocked.

"Hi," he said. Avery's eyes looked all hollowed-out in shadow through the screen, like I imagined his mom would have looked at the funeral if they had had an open casket. If her face was one of the parts that were left.

"Is the Colonel … I mean your dad, the Colonel. Is he home?" I would have felt bad about saying his name over and over, but this is the way people on the base talked. At the guard shack, the MPs always saluted and said things like, "Yes sir, Captain sir. Sir, yessir," when Dad drove through the gate.

"No." Avery's hollowed-out eyes turned back down the hall toward the radio. "Death Valley Days" was almost over.

"We brought you this." I held the pie even further toward him. "I baked it. My mom and I did." Avery opened the screen just enough for me to put the tin in his two hands.


"It's homemade." Jenny Meyer's mom couldn't bring pie like this, I thought. They don't sell dented pie pans and overflowed filling at the bakery. And they don't use special vanilla, like Mom does.

"Thanks," he said with that gray, gravelly voice of his father's and closed the screen door as he walked away, down the hall to the kitchen, probably.

The ghost in the window was still wiping sugary cherry spots off her palms and on to her skirt, but I didn't care. Instead of turning around and going to the car, I wanted to yell to Avery to come back so I could ask him what was it like to not have a mom. And who was going to teach him all the stuff that she didn't have a chance to? I wanted to ask him if it was true, what I heard the non-com wives saying in the back of the church as they picked up the programs from the funeral: His mother didn't hear the train coming because she was drunk, driving her brand new Chevy Bel Air home from a martini lunch at the Officer's Club. And what was the difference between a woman who drinks cocktails with lunch at the Officer's Club and someone who takes a sip of vanilla each time she makes cookies or cakes? Or pie? And what were they gonna eat in a few months, when someone else needed pie delivered to them by the Base Ladies Auxiliary?

I pushed the silver button on the Dodge's door handle in with my thumb and slid onto the vinyl seat. "He said 'thanks'."

My mother smiled.

Back at home, over beef pot roast, green beans with pickled onions, and boiled potatoes, when Mom told Dad about my pie crust, and my errand, and how proud she was of me, he nodded his head and smiled, too.

That was the summer Mom got me up at 5:30 am one morning, just after Dad's coffee was done percolating, so we could go pick strawberries at this little farm on the edge of town. We put on dungarees and long-sleeved shirts, and straw hats that made us look like coolies. In my disguise, I leaned out the window of the Dodge, looking for the sign with a huge wooden strawberry at the side of the road. By eleven o'clock we each had stains like wine on our fingers, clumps of mud and grass from the soles of our shoes to our knees, and six woven-bamboo baskets brimming with ripe berries, some with leaves, vines, and blossoms still attached.

All afternoon we stood in bare feet in the kitchen; tiny red pin-pricks, welts from the strawberry bushes, drew maps of the morning on our arms and legs. The berries floated stem side up in the apron sink like buoys on a pale pink lake, waiting for me to grab each one, stick an old silver grapefruit spoon into the flesh under the grassy stem, and cut them in pieces for marmalade. Pink rivulets of cold water inched down my arms, dripping from my elbows, down onto the floor. Pink strawberry juice sprayed all over the counter and across the O'Keefe and Merritt stove as I swatted at a mosquito and missed, and missed, and missed again.

A wave of heat rolled across the already sweltering kitchen as Mom pulled open the oven door just a crack to check the shortcakes I'd made. Shortcakes were easier than pie crust. There was much less rolling and fussing, and it didn't matter so much if they were odd shapes or slightly different thicknesses. A tablespoon of baking powder was the only thing that separated this recipe from pie crust; but brush the dough with cream and sprinkle with a little sugar and the results were remarkable.

"Sweetie I think they are about done. What do you think?" Mom smiled.

I wiped my hands on a flour sack tea towel, and took the baking tray full of puffed golden cakes out of the oven. Setting the pan on our cast iron trivet, I looked over my shoulder toward the swinging door of the kitchen. Then, with tentative hands, I found the little flask of blackberry brandy on the top shelf of the pantry behind the apple butter we canned last year. I splashed some of the purple liquid in a bowl of cut berries, stirred for a moment, and licked the spoon while Mom measured sugar in a porcelain teacup.

"If it turns out alright, I thought it would be nice if I brought some shortcake to the Colonel," I said. "And his son, Avery."

Like Mom said, we had to do what we could, and I could do this. And maybe with a few more trips I could figure it out: What made the Colonel's wife different from us. And why she really tried to beat the train.


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Gwendolyn Rice is a professional writer and playwright based in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an MA in Theater Literature, History, and Criticism from UW-Madison, and a BA in English and Theater from the University of Iowa.

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