The Secret Ingredient
Family tradition, high octane baked goods, the world of competitive baking, small town living and pet pigs collide in Nancy Naigle’s The Secret Ingredient, a decently good and pleasantly readable homespun romance about an engaged couple torn apart by differing ambitions But its deep commitment to a grow-where-you’re-planted philosophy might rub some readers the wrong way.
Kelly McIntyre is the fourth McIntyre in as many generations to man the counter at her parent’s business, the Main Street Café. It’s not big and fancy, but she’s happy in Bailey’s Fork, North Carolina – especially with her highschool sweetheart and fiancé, budding chef Andrew York, at her side, running the savory end of the business to her sweet.
Andrew and Kelly have a simple plan – he’s going to a culinary arts program for six months, they’ll get married, and will then move back to Bailey’s Fork to run the café, raise a family and run their prospective businesses, with Kelly hoping to open a bakery to show off her stunning and well-known cakes. But as his class ends, Andrew is offered a top-of-the-line scholarship at a Paris university, and when Kelly refuses to move there and marry him in the summer, he tells her that he won’t be coming back to Bailey’s Fork. Their break up devastates her.
Seven years later, Kelly has her own shop – the Cake Factory, which has gone on to nationwide fame – and has buried herself in the day to day of her ever-expanding mail-order, bakery and catering business. Her only other attachment besides her friends and family is a pig named Gray (an acronym for Good Riddance Andrew York). She’s been doing so well she’s been invited to compete in a Valentine’s Day bake-off in New York City.
Meanwhile, Andrew, who’s become a high-profile chef living the bachelor’s life in Paris, returns to town for a quick family vacation and plans to avoid Kelly, but a welcome home party results in a their meeting again. Andrew is smitten by the old memories of their time together, and feels more at home in Bailey’s Fork than he ever has in Paris, but he’s hiding a secret from Kelly – he’s going to be competing against her in that bake-off. As he gets closer to her while helping her keep up with the bakery’s business, the secret looms. Will New York tear them apart or will the contest bring them closer together?
The Secret Ingredient is very traditional in one way, and very modern in another. That can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on how you feel about leaving your home town and figuring out what’s outside of those doors. I liked that the hero and heroine’s partnership is what makes them stronger chefs and stronger workers; their relationship worked for me on many levels. But I had to take some points on for the book’s stubborn insistence that Andrew’s choice to go to Paris to be trained – especially when he invited Kelly to come with him – makes him a bad person. While it doesn’t villainize New York City, the idea that home could only mean a single place for a person and that leaving it for a long period of time is the worst thing you could do felt stunted and unimaginative.
I did find Kelly’s inability to forgive Andrew a little ridiculous. It was her choice to stay home because she couldn’t leave Bailey’s Fork for a few years; but she could have easily launched her business as the mail order company it became and moved there. I found this part of the conflict really flimsy, and the way their old high school friends talked down to Andrew about his fancy degree came off as little more than barely-muffled jealousy.
Now, don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way – the romance between Kelly and Andrew is likable, and the tension at the bake-off genuine. I liked the way they navigated their careers, and their families and friendships. For all of my nitpicking, audiences who want a generally easygoing small town romance heavy on the food porn will adore this. But my wish for more interesting conflict and a slightly broader message kept me from grading it more highly.
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