This story was inspired by a recent blogpost by Deb, The Widow Badass. Her post (if you missed it, you can read it here… but don’t forget to come back!) told of finding a cookbook in a thrift store and discovering a cake recipe tucked between the pages. Speculation about the women – whose name was on the recipe – ensued in the comment section. Secret Ingredients is a story about that woman, her dear friend, Lettie, and how the recipe ended up inside Deb’s thrift store find.
It had been a week since Lettie had attended the funeral of her best friend, so she was quite surprised to receive a package addressed in Violet’s hand with her return address affixed to the corner. Judging by the package’s shape and size, it most likely contained a book but Lettie was baffled. Why had her friend, knowing that she was close to the end of her life, made the effort to wrap, address, and mail Lettie a book?
Lettie carefully slipped her fingers under the tape and slowly unwrapped the package. When she saw what was inside, a flood of memories washed over her. The Christmas Cookbook had been an often-used and much-loved reference when Lettie and Violet were young mothers. They spent many enjoyable hours in their kitchens baking for their holiday celebrations. Lettie couldn’t recall if she or Violet purchased the book originally but it had been passed back and forth countless times. The last pass must have been to Violet before she and her husband moved across the country, and now she had returned it to her friend.
Through tears of loss, Lettie began to page through the book. Just about every recipe reminded her of happy times in their long friendship. The Edible Cookie Ornaments had delighted their young children and decorated their trees every year. The Black Forest Trifle disaster that had covered Violet’s kitchen in splattered chocolate and dissolved the two of them into fits of laughter.
When Lettie reached the cookbook’s index, she was surprised to find an envelope inserted between the pages. She held her breath as she retrieved the paper from the envelope, then let it out in a gasp. It was Violet’s recipe for her Christmas Cake, stained and wrinkled from years of use and with several barely legible handwritten notes in the margins.
Lettie and Violet had been best friends since high school. Almost from the moment they met, they knew theirs would be a special friendship – the sister neither of them had. They shared freely with each other: their hopes and dreams, clothes, makeup, and, best of all, the confidence that they would tell each other everything. No matter what.
After graduating high school, they attended the same college and, four years later, settled down in the same small town. When each eventually met the man they wanted to marry, they were relieved when the other gave her full approval. As close as they were, their husbands had to be friends too.
The only bump in their three decades of friendship happened about 15 years ago when Violet brought a cake to Lettie and Jim’s annual holiday open house. Lettie had worked hard getting ready for the party. She had been cooking for several days and was proud of the results. Despite all of the beautiful decorations and delicious food, it seemed that the only thing her guests talked about afterward was Violet’s amazing Christmas Cake. Everyone, including Lettie, asked her for the recipe but she declined, saying it was an old family recipe that needed to stay in the family.
It was the first time Lettie could remember that Violet wouldn’t share something with her. The fact that she said that it was a secret family recipe made the hurt even worse. Lettie considered Violet to be family and thought that her friend felt the same way.
Lettie knew that she was being overly sensitive so she did her best to talk herself out of her hurt. Violet was her best friend and a silly cake recipe shouldn’t come between them. When Violet brought the cake to other gatherings, Lettie joined in the praise. When her cake won second place at a holiday baking contest, Lettie congratulated her. Lettie liked to think she had completely moved on, but she knew that wasn’t true.
Now, years later, here was Violet’s Christmas Cake recipe. As Lettie looked over the ingredients, she couldn’t see what was so special about it. Flour, butter, eggs, sugar, dried fruit. Big deal. She read the handwritten notes carefully to see if there was any secret combining or baking techniques. Nothing.
Feeling a little let down, Lettie refolded the recipe and was about to tuck it back into the envelope when she noticed another piece of paper inside. Pulling it out, she saw that it was a letter written in Violet’s tiny, neat handwriting.
I have been going through my things when I’ve felt strong enough, putting aside items for the special people in my life. When I came across our old Christmas cookbook, I knew that I had to get it back to you. I hope you have as many fond memories of us baking from it as I do.
I’m also sending you the Christmas Cake recipe. I’m not sure if you remember, but years ago I brought the cake to one of your fabulous holiday parties. As you can see, the recipe is a simple one. Truth be told, I had found it in a magazine. After making a few minor changes, I claimed it as mine but it really wasn’t “my” cake. When you and several of your guests said they loved it and asked for the recipe, I was flustered. Out of embarrassment, I made up the story about it being a secret family recipe that I couldn’t share – even with you. Though you didn’t say anything at the time, I know that hurt you very much.
I should have shared the recipe with you years ago and I am so sorry. You are my sister and my family, and I hope you can forgive me. I also hope you think of me when you make it and maybe laugh a bit at my silly vanity.
Lettie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and looked over the recipe again. She realized that she had all of the ingredients on hand to make the cake. As she gathered everything together, she could feel her friend standing beside her. For the first time since Violet’s funeral, Lettie found that she could not only smile but laugh – at her friend’s vanity, at her own mistaken assumptions, and at the memories of all the fun they used to have together in the kitchen.
A few days after she finished the last bite of cake, Lettie decided to type a clean copy of the recipe, incorporating Violet’s handwritten notes. She was about to hit Print when she reconsidered. She moved her cursor to the top of the page and added her friend’s name to the title. It really is your cake, Violet, she thought. You always added the most important ingredient: your love. Feeling the warmth of her friend’s embrace, she inserted Violet Burke’s Christmas Cake recipe between the pages of The Christmas Cookbook and carefully closed the cover.