The Secret Ingredient

By Dominique Browning, January/February 2010

Author Dominique Browning’s essay on the healing powers of friends and family.

"It's not that these cookies don't look totally amazing, it's just that I don't know if I can bring myself to use 2 sticks of butter in a cookie recipe. Does Eating Well have a lighter version? If not, perhaps I can adjust it. "

Click here for Caroline's renowned Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

Some time ago, I had to stay home in bed for several weeks, recovering from major surgery. I had no idea what I was in for. No one tells you that it isn’t the operation you need to worry about; that’s out of your control. What is in your hands—or rather, in the hands of the people who love you—is recovery.

When you are recuperating from surgery, your world becomes very tiny; you are living inside a small child’s crayon drawing of a house. There are four walls, there’s a window or two. There’s a transparency between this world and the next; you get a terrifying glimpse before it is once again hidden in the busyness of daily life. Your body, in its pain, preempts all. You must get better.

You will need. You will learn to say that you need. I had to practice saying it. I need ice. I need a cool washcloth on my face. There is no end to the need: I need to know that I am loved and cherished, that there is gladness around the simple fact of my survival.

In response to all that need, you get a demonstration of one of life’s blessings: nothing is more healing than the love of friends and family. My sister drove me home from the hospital, as slowly as she could, because every bump and pothole inflicted a spasm of pain. My children hovered at my door, sweet and scared. My friends came to see me. My parents came to the house every day for weeks. Eventually I understood what it must have been like for them to think how I could have died before they did. I had never realized that we are always, no matter how old we are, their children until our parents are no longer with us.

As soon as I got home from the hospital, my friend Caroline packed her bags, drove to New York from Boston, and moved into my guest room. She brought with her a tin of chocolate chip cookies so delicious they could have revived the dead. They are renowned in her world; she bakes a batch for every dinner party she gives. They are properly called Mom’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, as her mother invented them. Caroline isn’t one to keep secrets; all her friends have the recipe. Not a single one of us has been able to replicate it. Her cookie is a thin, delicate thing that holds hot, dark chips in a crunchy, crackly lacework. Mine sag, droop, clump and fray.

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