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She quickly learned that the way to a businessman's heart was through his stomach.
Mayor Day called me that morning, his voice crackling with an urgency I’d never heard before. I could picture him pacing behind the desk in his office, his brow creased, shirtsleeves rolled up.
“These Chinese dignitaries that are coming to town, I need you to whip up something really special for them. I’m counting on you, Adrian. The whole town is. This could be just the thing to put us over the top.”
“Okay, I’m on it,” I said. I hung up and tried to ignore the knot in my stomach.
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I’m a caterer, and for years I’ve done all the mayor’s events for Thomasville, Alabama, our little town of 4,099. He likes everything I make, but I knew exactly what he wanted this time. His favorite. Banana pudding.
I guess you could say it’s my mama’s recipe, but if there’s one thing Mama taught me about cooking, it’s that the best cooks don’t really use a recipe at all. They just have a feel for how ingredients work together to make an ordinary dish sensational. And naturally, they always add that special something. Secret sauce. Love. Prayers. Whatever it was, Mama had it. She was the head of the meals committee at Liberty Baptist Church, where she taught Sunday school for 50 years.
Mama knew what to make for every occasion–Sawmill Days, Homecoming or Mothers’ Day dinner. I worked beside her in the kitchen as a girl, helping make chicken and dumplings, sweet-potato casserole, mac and cheese, and dreaming of one day being able to cook just the way she did.
It was her desserts she was known for. And of all the confections that Mama concocted, none rivaled her banana pudding. There was only one word for it. Heavenly.
Mama cooked her banana pudding on the stove, like any true connoisseur would expect. None of that instant-pudding mix. Hers was thick and cream-colored, not dark yellow like the other ladies made. The difference was that she used evaporated milk along with whole milk. Easy enough. Her meringue, though–that was the work of an artist. Fluffy, and perfectly browned on the peaks.
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I remember practicing in the kitchen when I was young, Mama showing me how to make sure the meringue went all the way to the edges of the dish so it would seal properly. “Good job, Adrian,” Mama would say. I was so proud when I finally got mine just right, the way she did.
Mama taught me to love cooking because it brings folks together. “A good cook makes people happy,” she always said. And I’d seen plenty of Baptists swoon over her banana pudding. But could it save an entire county?
For months Mayor Day had tried his best to persuade some Chinese businessmen who ran a copper company to build their new plant in Thomasville, but our little town didn’t have the land they needed. “We’re leaning toward Houston,” the company rep told Mayor Day. “Nothing personal. Just business.”
“Wait! What about Wilcox County?” the mayor asked. “The county line’s just five minutes from Thomasville and they’ve got plenty of land.” Now that was the truth. Wilcox, just east of us, was one of the poorest counties in the entire United States. There hadn’t been any kind of manufacturing plant built there since the 1970s.