November 26, 2005
Josette, a Paris baker, made a cinnamon cake so delectable that almost daily she received requests for the secret recipe.
"Non," she always said, "I will take my recipe to the grave."
But over the years, despite her refusals, Josette continued to receive letters and notes from people who'd sampled her cake, asking that she pass along her secret. The majority of them, Josette could easily dismiss; most wanted the recipe for secret reasons of their own, or so it seemed, because most didn't bother to explain their reasons for wanting it. They took and took, Josette thought, much as one consumed a piece of cake, and once that piece was gone it came out the private end and was flushed away.
But every year on November 26th, Josette received a letter postmarked from a modest region in the French countryside. The letters were written on plain brown paper, in a wobbly hand. This wobbliness brought to Josette's mind a sailor she'd once loved more deeply than any recipe she kept to herself. Before he drowned, her sailor used to send her letters from far away. Josette remembered reading his letters right there in the post office, wondering if the wobbles in his script were caused by the pull of the ocean.
Because of the wobbly handwriting, then, Josette felt kindly towards this writer from the countryside. "La vie est courte," he said. "Such a recipe is for the living. Which is the very reason you should release it."
The years passed: Algerians drowned in the Seine, Disneyland Paris opened, Josette unlocked the bakery door every morning without fail, and many sailors died in wars.
And over the years, Josette grew tired of working. One could only heft so many bags of flour. She cut back her hours, settled more often into chairs, and stopped opening her mail. It was lovely now to be alone with herself and lovely to grow old. Letters asking for her cinnamon cake recipe piled up on Josette's desk until the piles grew too cumbersome, and then she'd throw them away. But in the drawer of her night stand was a secret box in which she kept the brown-paper notes she received every November 26th. And now, late in her life, she found that she dreamed at night of her sailor and the warm, woody scent of his body. It wasn't cinnamon, but it was close.
Then early one late-winter morning, Josette died in bed. Her family auctioned off her things and burned up all her letters.
The bakery has long since been converted to a store where one can buy used cameras. But if you should wish to visit Josette's grave, as many people have, you can read her recipe for cinnamon cake, which she's had engraved on her headstone.