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The Secret Ingredient

My mother made perfectly shaped dainty cookies that put Martha Stewart’s to shame. But the texture tended to be on the dry side. I prefer mine chewy. That led me to altering her recipe. So what if my cookies were lopsided and flat? They were delicious.

One morning, my four-year-old followed the sweet aroma to the kitchen where he found me baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. He climbed up on a chair at the table and reached his pudgy little hand as far as it would go. I grabbed a broken treat and handed it to him. “Here, you can eat the ugly ones.”

With a worried look on his face, he replied, “Mommy, I can’t eat that many.” No denying it. My cookies were nothing to look at, but, oh the taste – everyone raved about them. My son insisted I market them one day. Move over, Mrs. Fields! This started the family joke – the secret recipe could never be shared.

More than thirty years later, I still bake my signature cookies for every family get-together. No one enjoys them more than my ten-year-old granddaughter, Kylie.

One evening, she called to let me know she’d joined the local 4-H Club and enrolled in the Food & Nutrition group. In my day, participants met at the volunteer leader’s home. Contemporary 4-H members choose a mentor to guide them. This Grandma was over the moon when Kylie asked if I’d teach her how to make her favorite, my chocolate chip cookies.

We held our first cooking class the following week. My granddaughter made herself at home in my kitchen. Checking and double-checking my handwritten notes, she carefully measured out the ingredients. As she diligently stirred the batter, she talked about her best friend, her summer plans, and the uncharted waters of middle school.

While the cookies baked, instead of savoring the aroma, I savored her preteen chatter, thinking my sassy little girl had grown up in the blink of an eye.

Kylie sighed with relief when she took the last batch from the oven. I sampled one and gave her a thumbs up. After the cookies cooled, she placed them in a container to take home to her family. Her dad was outside when we pulled into her driveway. She bounded from the car and handed him a cookie.

He’d barely taken a bite when she blurted, “Are mine as good as Grandma’s?”

Her shoulders slumped when he shook his head ‘no.’ She looked crestfallen until he said, “They’re better.” He glanced my way and winked. “Remember Kylie. You can’t divulge the secret recipe.”

Exhibit day at the 4-H County Fair finally arrived. Although my granddaughter had made the recipe a dozen times under my watchful eye, she held up each carefully measured ingredient for approval and took her time placing the dough on the cookie sheets.

When she finished baking, she pointed to the flat, squiggly-edged objects on the counter and asked, “Grandma, do you really think the judges will like my cookies?”

“Honey, don’t worry about appearance. It’s all about the taste.”

She took her time choosing the four most eye-appealing ones (not an easy feat) and then arranged and rearranged them on a platter until the display met her satisfaction. Following the contest rules, she sat down and meticulously wrote the ingredients and instructions on an index card before attaching the recipe as required.

Fidgety on the ride to the fairgrounds, Kylie worried out loud whether the judges would award her a white, red, or coveted first-place blue ribbon for her cookie-making efforts. Truth be told, I was more nervous than she was.

We pulled up to the building and Kylie got out of the car slowly, clutching her entry with both hands. “Wish me luck,” she whispered before trudging inside the judging area where only members were allowed. Meanwhile, I sat in the car biting my nails.

Twenty minutes later, she sashayed out grinning from ear to ear. She held up a blue ribbon and waved it. “At first, the judge looked at my cookies and said, ‘Oh, dear!’” My granddaughter giggled and continued, “Then she tasted one and said, ‘What a surprise. These are heavenly.’”

On the way home Kylie said, “Don’t worry, Grandma. Your secret recipe is safe. I left some of the ingredients off the card.”

My shoulders shook. I tried not to laugh out loud as I pictured the judge, who’d raved about the yummy chocolate chip cookies, trying to recreate the recipe.

Instead, I replied, “Oh, Sweetheart, that wasn’t necessary. The real secret ingredient is love.”


  1. There’s nothing like sharing a recipe and spending time with someone you love–made special with the lesson that “good” things do not have to be perfect. Enjoyed your essay!

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