Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Memories—The Secret Ingredient

In Taste of Home magazine there was (is?) a page where readers share the secret ingredient they add to make their recipe “special”—a-tablespoon-or-two-of-grape-jelly-added-to-my-spaghetti-sauce type tips. If Mrs. Duffy turned Ms. Melbourne were alive, she could have written in lots of ideas.

First she was Mrs. Duffy and then about half way through my grade school years she became Ms. Melbourne. She was our school cook. She cooked in the lunch room upstairs of our old brick school building. She made the noodles for chicken and noodles. She also made the bread, cinnamon rolls, hotdog and hamburger buns she served. On bread days she made extra loaves to sell to the teachers and then bought potato chips and ice cream bars for our lunches with the money earned. I thought she was one of the best cooks on earth, and I wasn’t a hungry girl. I grew up around good cooks.

One of my favorite lunches was served on Fridays: tomato soup. At first I thought it was homemade because it didn’t sting my throat like Campbell’s tomato soup, but her recipe didn’t taste a thing like mom’s. I saw industrial sized cans of Campbell’s soup on the lunchroom shelves and that only added to my confusion. For years I wondered what her magic ingredient was. Years, and I do mean years later, I realized all she did was add milk instead of water. Ms. Melbourne’s tomato soup secret was milk.

The same thing happened with her apple crisp. The top was rich, thick, and crusty. Always looking for a recipe that matched hers, I finally found one in the newspaper twenty years later that tasted just like hers:

Apple Crisp

1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
1 cup flour
10 Tbsp butter (butter tastes best, but margarine may be substituted)
7 cooking apples
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine sugar, flour, and butter in bowl until crumbly, set aside. Peel, core, and slice apples. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to the apples and pour into greased 9” x 9” pan. Cover apples with crumbly sugar, flour, and butter mixture, spreading evenly. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until topping is crisp and apples bubbly. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, dollop of whipped cream, or with half-and-half.

I still think of her every time I make it.

Ms. Melbourne added maple flavoring to her cinnamon roll frosting. Just a tiche, but it transformed them from a regular cinnamon roll into a donut realm. If I’m not frosting our cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting, you can bet they’ll have maple in them.

She also introduced the school to taco burgers. She browned and crumbled hamburger and served it on her fresh baked buns, then added grated cheese and chopped lettuce to it. I don’t know if she was out of taco shells that day, or if she didn’t have enough hamburger to give us each a patty, or didn’t want to make sloppy joes. All I know was they became a regular.

I thought Ms. Melbourne’s son was the luckiest kid alive to get to eat her cooking every night, but one time we went trick or treating at her house and her house didn’t smell anything like the school lunchroom. She confessed she didn’t cook much at home.

I’m certain Ms. Melbourne had no idea how often I would think of her through the years or how often I would imitate her recipes. But more than a little of this or a little of that, the secret that I learned from Ms. Melbourne is to never underestimate that what you’re doing won’t have an impact somehow, somewhere, on someone.


Tiffany Fackrell said...

cambell's tomato soup burns my throat too. weird, everytime I tell anyone that they think it is so weird. I am glad I am not that weird, now that I know it happens to other people too. But wait...does it only burn when you use water and not milk? because I ALWAYS make mine with milk.

deidra said...

My favorite secret ingredient is coconut extract in frosting for sugar cookies. Yum!

Now if only there was an easy way to make sugar cookies. They are such a hassle to me that I don't get to enjoy the frosting nearly enough!

Heather @ Multiple Hats said...

I love this post - thinking back on all the folks in my school that made an impact - from the cook to the janitor to my coaches. And, probably none of them had any idea how much.

Deanna/Mimi said...

Love your story which brought back memories I didn't know I had. For example, my dear mother loved tomato soup and always put milk in I know why. After my parents separated I had to change schools, mother had to go to work...and so after school was out my brother and I went across the street of the school and stayed with a lady until mom got off work at the Sprouse Retz (?)Five and Dime store. When we walked into the woman's home you would immediately smell the homemade bread that she had just taken from the oven. She would slice it, butter it and hand us each a piece. To this day homemade bread hot out of the oven is a favorite and always makes me think of this lady who took care of us at a difficult time in our lives. Thanks for the recipes...going to do your bread recipe today from your posting of a few days ago.

Susan said...

I can sympathize with Ms. Melbourne not wanting to cook at home. I feel the same way after lunch everyday.

I don't have any secret ingredients. Isn't that sad? You would think I could come up with something. But no.

I had lots of people in the schools that would help me out. I spent a lot of time at the school with my dad, and the lunch ladies always saved me a cookie from lunch for an after school snack while I waited for my dad to take me home.

Cali said...


Just reading this post made me think back to that old Hollister school building. What a unique place to go to school. I sure love you and love to hear your stories. You are a great story teller. Love, Cali

michelle said...

I'm amazed that you remember Ms. Melbourne! And even more amazed that your lunch lady was a good cook. I certainly never had that experience.

I'm afraid I don't have any secret ingredients. I'm such a slave to recipes!

Rebecca said...

My schools always had cranky cooks, shove you through the line type. I usually had a packed cold lunch, but on the days I had hot lunch, I was always anxious and nervous that I'd make it through alive!

And I will attest to your apple crisp recipe, we love it!

Jill said...

I tend to think of school lunches as mass produced food items the lunch ladies have warmed up, so your experience sounds endearing and mom-like.