Passing the Spatula
by Stephen Parrish

My mother-in-law’s potato salad recipe remained a secret for years. The family often convened behind her back to debate how best to extract it from her. To ponder what the consequences would be if she didn’t pass it along before going to Heaven. To wonder how we’d cope with the loss.

Rich and creamy, the sliced potatoes just the right firmness, and seasoned exquisitely: the salad inspired moaning at my mother-in-law’s dinner table. No conversation took place during its consumption. To speak, even of divine things, while chewing those heavenly morsels, would have been sacrilegious.

It contained much of the usual stuff, of that we could be sure: mayonnaise, diced pickles, miscellaneous spices. Over the years we were able to identify specific ingredients and estimate their proportions. But one ingredient eluded us. We knew it was there. We just couldn’t tell what it was. Enough of it was present to affect the flavor, yet not enough to allow identification, despite our best qualitative analyses.

My mother-in-law’s secret recipe had a secret ingredient.

It lent an ethereal quality, rooted admittedly in the tangible, the earthly; yet it was sublime, otherworldly. We placed it on our tongues. We closed our eyes. We moaned. We never could figure out what it was. We had to discover it.

We hired lawyers, but none was able to find a Potato Salad Recipe Inheritance Statute on the books. We submitted samples to chemical laboratories. Once we invited the family priest to dinner, so that he might taste the dish, but all he could suggest afterwards, while still in rapture from the experience, was that we torture the woman for the recipe.

“The church has lots of experience in these matters,” he assured us.

My wife is my mother-in-law’s oldest child, the apple of her eye. The love between them is inviolable. We turned to her, thinking perhaps an appeal to emotion would do the job. After an hour behind closed doors with her mother, during which we heard pleading and sobbing, and what sounded disconcertingly like the mournful cries of a wounded bear, my wife emerged, face flushed and lips quivering, and suggested we follow the priest’s advice:

“Rack the bitch.”

We tried tricking my mother-in-law into thinking she had only hours to live. We recruited a distant cousin to pretend to be a cookbook author willing to pay millions for the recipe. We dressed up in white sheets, masquerading as Ghosts of Meals Yet to Come, and haunted her bedroom.

Nothing worked. My mother-in-law only smiled wanly at our efforts and kept her cussed mouth shut.

“Time to get the priest,” I concluded. The consent was unanimous.

But my mother-in-law is wise. Aren’t they all? She knew the time had come to select a Potato Salad Recipe Heir. Or else face the rack. I confess that after having suffered years of frustrated longing, I was hoping she’d opt for the latter.

That is, until I found out her selection was me.

It was a balmy autumn day. The call was ordinary: “Can you come over for a minute?” Naturally. I always came when my mother-in-law called. When I arrived she handed me the key to the basement door and beckoned with her index finger: follow.

She led me into a corner of the basement, where she pulled a string, switching on a light bulb that protruded nakedly from the cement wall. The light glowed in muted orange, diffused by dust and sagging cobwebs.

She looked around to make sure we were alone. I did too, although it was quite a stretch to imagine anyone lurking among the cardboard boxes and shriveled spiders. She leaned toward me, placing her lips near my ear. She hesitated. I stood motionless, my pulse rising. A solemn silence enveloped the space around us.

She whispered a solitary word. The secret ingredient.

At first I was stunned. What originality, I thought. What genius. The great poets of centuries past would be stricken dumb by its bold freshness, its novelty. It’s virtuosity.

Few people before me had experienced such enlightenment: Nicolaus Copernicus, when he discovered his heliocentric theory. William Shakespeare, when he penned Hamlet. Lyle Lovett, when he saw Julia Roberts naked for the first time.

I dropped to my knees and gave thanks. To my mother-in-law. To my parents, for the selfish debauchery that spawned me. To Plato’s Realm of Ideas, where my mother-in-law’s potato salad surely represents the ideal of all potato salad in the vulgar, terrestrial domain.

The recipe will survive multiple iterations of the Big Bang. And every scientific revolution to come. When nineteenth century physicists postulated the “ether,” wrong though they were, they unwittingly constructed a medium, an affirmation, a metaphysical stamp of approval, for the perpetuation of my mother-in-law’s potato salad.

I was humbled speechless. Had a switch been at hand, I would have flagellated myself in compliant and docile subjugation to the Great Vortex from which Everything sprang.

My mother-in-law tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up. She was handing me a spatula. A symbol of the transfer of sacred knowledge. I took hold of it and wept. I understood my responsibilities as The Anointed One. I vowed never to let my family down.

They’re treating me with newfound respect these days. When I enter a room, groups part and all eyes turn to me. The air is thick with reverence. I’m even getting curtseys from the younger girls. I let them hold my cape.

We’re planning a gathering this weekend. The bustle of preparation pleases me. I happened to spy a couple of my uncles secretly building me a new kitchen counter. I’m touched. The counter is large and rectangular, like a medieval door, and it has ropes, spools, and a hand crank. Looks like I’m going to be making a lot of potato salad! I can’t wait to try it out.

A big crowd is expected. Even the family priest has been invited.