• Atlanta,  Life Stories

    The Secret Formula

    My friend Charles Driebe Jr. was born a lawyer. The first time I met him, when he joined our eighth grade class, he would argue about anything and would stick to his positions – whether they were right or wrong – like a pit bulldog.

    Although Charles has mellowed a bit in the past few years, he still exemplifies the old quote, “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” He is a fine lawyer and serves his clients well.

    But as for his friends, well that’s another matter. It is a rare day indeed that one of Charles’ friends ever wins acknowledgment that we won an argument with him. If we do, we lord it over him for years and brag about it in front of others – to his great consternation.

    One thing Charles won’t argue about is mayonnaise. He hates it. Back in high school, we started doing grown-up things like having dinner parties and guests would bring dishes. and before dinner could be served, he would carefully check each dish. If someone had made a casserole of questionable origin, he would lean down and sniff the concoction two or three times. Then he would squint his eyes, crinkle his nose, look skeptically at the maker of the dish and ask in his most prosecutorial voice, “Does this have any my-nez in it?” If a mayonnaise jar had so much as been opened in the same room while the dish was being prepared, Charles wouldn’t touch it, much to the dismay of the cook.

    When it came to dinner parties, I was a one-trick pony. I always brought my family’s secret blue cheese salad. It is no ordinary blue cheese salad. The lettuce and vegetable medley might vary slightly, but the recipe for the dressing was brought 120 years ago from Kentucky by my great-grandmother and I proudly maintain the purity of the original formula. It has an oil and vinegar base, with a strong kick. It has always passed the Charles test and he was one of my salad’s biggest fans.

    When Charles was engaged, he sent his fiancée to my house with orders to find out my secret formula so she could make the salad for him on a weekly basis when they got married. I don’t give out this recipe to anybody, but I was flattered with the level of honor Charles gave my concoction and I took her into my confidence. “There is one secret ingredient that I’ve never told anyone,” I told her very seriously. “And if I tell you, you have to promise never to tell anyone – and especially you can never, ever tell Charles.” Her eyes widened with excitement. “You don’t mean …” she said. “Yes,” I whispered. “Mayonnaise.”

    After their first meal she called me to tell me that our secret was safe. At one point, she told me that she had decided to tinker with the formula by adding even more mayonnaise. The more she put in the more Charles liked the salad. One night she dumped in what she was afraid was a detectable amount of the secret ingredient, but after Charles had had seconds and thirds, he leaned back and announced that she could now make the salad better than I ever could.

    For 25 years now, Charles has been eating this salad. I’ve let a few others in on the secret, usually after a few glasses of wine at Charles’ dinner parties, when he’s in the next room. Even my kids will lean over before meals at which Charles is a guest and ask in whispered tones, “Does Charles know yet?”

    “No,” I’d assure them. And he never knew.

    Until now.