Culinary paranoia: Secret ingredients

We have a long-standing family tradition of thinking someone may be trying to harm us in the kitchen. It’s not that we’re paranoid, it’s just that we all think somebody is out to get us.

When my brother was 4, he watched our mom make hot cocoa at the stove. He studied her mixing milk, sugar and cocoa in a pan over a flame. When she poured in a splash of vanilla, he asked if she was trying to poison him.

There was no convincing him. He’d seen what he’d seen.

Because such suspicion is deeply embedded in a family’s DNA, years ago when one of our girls watched me make guacamole and saw me add lemon juice, she asked me what I was up to. As though I was doing something devious.

“It keeps it from turning brown,” I explained.

She actually made me feel criminal making guacamole.

Family stayed with us over the weekend and I made scrambled eggs Saturday morning, sprinkling them with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Later, the 7-year-old took me aside and said, “Grandma, I liked pepper on the eggs. It makes them spicy.”

“Good,” I said.

“But we don’t eat salt.” She tilted her head and shot me a look that said, “What do you have to say for yourself, woman?”

Guilty — that’s what I have to say for myself. Guilty of seasoning eggs.

Not only is our family suspicious, we do our best to spread suspicion to incoming family members.

We have a son-in-law who detests tomatoes. He so detests them it even says so on the back of his driver’s license: Designated Organ Donor and Hater of Tomatoes.

I persuaded him there was nothing as wonderful as a sun-dried tomato packed in olive oil. So he tried one. Cautiously. He chewed it a couple times, looked at me like I was trying to kill him and then spit it out.

There’s been a distance between us ever since.

We were at our son’s place in Chicago a while back and I was stunned to see him hunched over a bottle of vodka at the kitchen sink on a Sunday morning.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

He said yes, he and his wife have been making their own vanilla by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for two to three months and he was just straining some for a specialty coffee.

He gave me a bottle to bring home.

I was straining some vanilla from the big vodka bottle into the little bottle I keep in the spice cabinet when the husband walked in.

“I didn’t know you drank,” he said. “And before 9 a.m.?”

“I don’t,” I said. “It’s vanilla.”

“Sure it is.”

Lori Borgman is an Indianapolis columnist. Send comments to