All Recipes Have a Secret Ingredient

03/26/2015 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

Though her memory doesn't cooperate any longer, I persist. "Mom -- do I use walnuts or almonds, red delicious or honey crisp apples? Should I use red wine or white?" It is Passover; time to make haroset, a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, and spices to recognize the hardships of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. In the Passover feast, a meal based on tradition and order, each food plays a symbolic role and carries its weight of history.

I'm not sure when I started the tradition of calling my mom to ask for her recipe. Surely, after all these years I know the recipe by heart; surely I've passed some version of this recipe to my daughters, who now make their own haroset, often adding cashews, dates, cardamom, even cayenne for good measure. Yet each Passover, for most of the last thirty years, I have phoned my mother to ask her to recite, step by step, ingredient by ingredient this simple recipe. Like the haroset itself, symbolizing bricks and mortar, our annual ritual bound us together. Until it didn't.

My mom most likely never had a written recipe for haroset; it was handed down from her aunts, across generations, as these things seem to be. I can't find any written record of it, neither in her over-stuffed 3x5 recipe box, nor in her beloved guide, The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man's Heart. Cooking was precise business to my mom; recipes followed, nothing left to chance. Apples were carefully inspected and selected; spices exactly measured. She wasn't enthralled by Julia Child's insouciance, as her friends were. She couldn't see the humor in Child's dropping a potato pancake, or ingredients splayed and spilled.

"So, Mom, how do you make your haroset?, the call would begin. "Well," she would suggest, her voice confident and reliable: "you start with apples -- good red delicious apples, never use bad ones." I played along, questioning and prodding, as if I didn't know what might come next. We each knew our lines; never varied from them. We worked our way through the recipe, as if the entire ritual existed for the final lines: "But, Mom, that couldn't be all; there must be a secret ingredient." "Yes," she laughed, "all recipes have a secret ingredient -- love."

Our call and response ritual -- we did it until we no longer could. Until mom no longer remembered haroset, no longer remembered recipes or cooking. "How would I know? I've never made it," she replied last year. Maybe some new questions might stir memories, I thought. "Should I start with the apples?" "That sounds like a good idea," she mumbled. "But what kind of apples," I continued. "The kind people eat," she offered in a voice signaling that it was time for the questions to end.

Perhaps our ritual was never about the recipe; perhaps it was just an opportunity, across the years, to hold time in place, and remain forever a daughter guided by her mother. I will make haroset this year from the apples people eat, but I will miss hearing my mom's laugh, her reassuring voice -- "all recipes have a secret ingredient -- love."