She quickly learned that the way to a businessman's heart was through his stomach.
by Adrian Drinkard — Posted on Apr 29, 2014
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.
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.
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.
“But that’s not your county,” the company rep said. “Why are you lobbying for them?”
“Because if you build in Wilcox County their economy grows and so will Thomasville’s. Besides, there’s something to be said for loving your neighbor, isn’t there?”
The rep agreed to visit Wilcox County before the final decision was made. All the top executives would come and have lunch in Thomasville. Lunch that I cooked. And for dessert, the dish the mayor hoped would sweeten the deal. Banana pudding. With 300 jobs riding on it, I knew it had to be perfect. Like Mama’s.
The luncheon was held at the Thomasville Civic Center. Next to each plate I’d placed a little cup of pudding. I looked on anxiously as the Chinese businessmen eyed the dessert. Were they curious–or disgusted?
One of the men pointed at his cup and said something to the translator. I couldn’t hear his answer but the businessman still looked puzzled.
He took a spoon, slid it into the pudding, then put barely a taste to his lips. For a moment there was no reaction. Then he smiled, a grin that went from ear to ear. The rest of the businessmen started eating their pudding, one bite after another. In seconds all the cups were empty.
One of the businessmen looked toward me and said something to the translator, who waved me over to the table. “Excuse me,” he said. “Is there more? More...” he searched for the word “...pie?”
I brought out seconds. Then thirds. Finally an entire tray of banana pudding. Every last cup was devoured. By the time the men put down their dessert spoons they’d reached an agreement. They needed to know more about Wilcox County. There would be another meeting. Another lunch.
“And we will have again the banana pie?” one of the executives asked.
Mayor Day didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely,” he said. “Adrian’s lunches always come with banana pie.”
It didn’t take long before everyone in Thomasville was talking about how the Chinese execs took to my “banana pie.”
And a few months later, when it was announced that the plant would be built in Wilcox County instead of Houston, everyone joked that the decision had come down to one thing: Our Chinese visitors wanted to be someplace where they could count on a steady supply of banana pie.
Mama’s been gone on to her reward for a few years now, but I like to think she’s up in heaven, looking down on that new copper plant going up in Wilcox County, and saying, “Good job, Adrian.”
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