The Secret Ingredient

Stories

Melissa was off in the kitchen, a-bustle with the casserole and lo mein. I helped myself to some goulash. Now, I’m not a huge fan of goulash, but I was really hungry. And by that I mean desperate. The goulash didn’t look so bad, but the name makes me slightly nervous. And Melissa is the type of woman to correct me if I tried to call it stew. “No, no, that’s GOULASH.” Yep, I get it. Goulash. Yuck. There’s also the disturbing notion of most of the ingredients hiding beneath a brown murky broth. I’m not always so particular about knowing everything that goes into a dish, but it helps to see the basic components instead of unearthing them from the mire of an unguessable swamp.

I know Melissa means well. We go back since high-school, and even though I’m very different than the fussy soft-ball playing prom girl I used to be, Melissa doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. She’s still the cheery chubby cherub she’s always been. A little rounder, maybe, but then, having babies will do that to you. Or so they say; I wouldn’t know. She’s a fulltime mom – has about a million snotty kids that always seem to be wiping their boogers on my yoga pants. Somehow she always manages to keep a good attitude. I guess time has let the distance between us grow. Deep down, I’m not so heartbroken over it. The get-together was her idea, some sort of community event for the housewives that belong to our church. I barely qualify, but I’ve dodged too many of these functions before, and I’m out of excuse points.

I guess eating goulash can redeem all the dying uncles I invented and the tennis meets that Kyle never reached. But it’s still a steep price to pay. I scooped some onto my floral print plate, trying to discern its more distinguishable ingredient. Definitely some beef and potatoes, and some… Tomato? No, red pepper. And green pepper too. The soft leather of a cooked onion. Some barley. Not so bad. No eyeballs or fingernails. Not yet, anyway.

I took a small cautious bite. I was shocked. It was really good goulash! It truly was. Cooked to perfection, the meat was tender, the peppers held their form, the onions added a rich flavor. All the misgivings evaporated with the rising steam. It tasted different somehow, but I couldn’t place it. I tried to eat slowly, still being hungry and all, trying to digest both my food and the concept in a timely fashion: Melissa had made a knockout dish.

And suddenly, there she was, just coming from the kitchen, her forehead dotted with the beginning of sweat. She was wiping her large hands on a filthy apron.

“How’s the goulash? Is it good?” she asked me hopefully.

I swallowed to answer, “It’s great! You really–”

“Good! I’m so glad. I was worried.”

I shook my head vigorously. “No, I mean it’s really good. There’s almost a special flavor to them.”

Melissa bobbed her head enthusiastically. I thought her baking cap would fly clean into the kitchen.

“It is special. It’s my new special recipe.”

“I taste a bit of paprika and … Curry?”

“Yep!” She was elated. I could almost see the tears of joy stream down her face. It was like stroking a puppy. “But that’s not the half of it,” she said mysteriously. “I added a secret ingredient.”

The smile froze on my face. “What is it?” I asked, as casually as I could.

Melissa remained undaunted. “Oh, no you don’t!” She intoned merrily, wagging a grimy finger at me. “It’s not a secret if I tell you, is it?”

I smiled even more widely. “Oh come on, Melissa. You can trust me.” I was sure my cheeks would split open from the strain.

“I can’t, it’s secret. That’s the point. Here, take some more.” She made as if to scoop some more goulash onto my plate. I grabbed her piggy hand and squeezed. Hard. Her smile faltered, and I dropped mine and put a chill in my voice. “Tell me what it is. Now.”

The other ladies were starting to take interest. Melissa looked around then leaned in close to whisper, “Homemade candy corn. The kids made it.”

 

I felt the bile rising in my throat. I could see three of her kids in the living room, one was crying with thick green snot running down into his mouth, making bubbles every time he breathed. His sister was flossing her braces with a strand of ratty hair. All three seemed to glance in my direction at the same time to grin evilly.

Melissa yanked her hand out of my grasp and I put a hand to my mouth… I felt the pre-vomit burps erupting involuntarily from my food pipe. “Breuuuup!” People were staring, and all I could think about was that I was wearing a new blouse. Barf poured out of my mouth with a vengeance, right onto the table. People were backing up in disgust. “Oh my god,” someone breathed. Out it came, into the bowl of socially acceptable non-alcoholic punch; it poured into the dish bearing the lo mein, coating the top of the casserole with a rusty brown finish. It looked, I surmised idiotically, like goulash.

I looked up, feeling strangely relaxed and serene. People were watching me with horror on their faces. Somebody was retching in the corner. I was aware of my bloodshot eyes, the mess on my clothes, and the stringy strand of brown saliva still attached to my bottom lip. Melissa was sobbing. Her face was a mess of cheap mascara and kitchen grease.

Her brats were still grinning like cretins. Them. It was their fault. I stood up suddenly, wiped my chin with my sleeve and advanced on them with my plate held in front of me like a weapon. The barf on my plate looked exactly like the goulash; in fact, there was some improvement. “How do you like your goulash now, huh?!” I thundered. “You little freaks!”  They scattered like mice.

Somebody yelled, “What the hell, Janice!” And I threw the plate in the direction of her voice and kept walking amid the shouts of protest, though the front door and out into the street.

Goulash-2

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