The Mad Dash Answers: With heaping teaspoons of knowledge and a knack for caring and kindness, the information hot line folks at McCormick share the recipe for kitchen calm.

November 28, 1996|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

I'll cook from scratch, said the new bride, lying. She made beef stroganoff -- her husband's favorite -- from a mix. He told her he loved it; she hid the empty packets in the trash.

Then her grocery store in Texas ran out of beef stroganoff mix.

"Please help me," the working woman pleaded into the phone. "Where can I find it?"

Hundreds of miles away, in suburban Baltimore, in the teal-carpeted corporate office of the spice company that made the mix, a woman was listening. A woman who would prefer not to show you her face, or share her age, or dwell in any way on the gentle and generous manner in which she responds to people's questions about her company's products. In fact, if it were up to the woman, this story would focus mostly on the three other people who answer the spice company's toll-free hot line, instead of searching for meaning and truth on Thanksgiving morning in the solution to the poor bride's culinary crisis.

But the undeniable fact is this: Somewhere out there is a bride, no longer so new, whose marriage was quite possibly saved by what Marlene Hronowski, consumer affairs specialist at McCormick & Co., did next.

She shipped an ample supply of McCormick Beef Stroganoff Sauce Mix to Texas.

Not to the young woman's home.

To her office.

No matter how chaotic your kitchen is today, you can take comfort in knowing that panicked, confused and worried cooks keep McCormick's four Hunt Valley-based hot line operators busy five days a week. It adds up to 200 questions a day, says Mary Randisi, director of consumer affairs, and even more during the holidays, when people wonder if that 5-year-old bottle of vanilla is still good, and how to make Christmas tree ornaments out of cinnamon mixed with applesauce, and can anyone find the recipe for corn pudding that the grandchildren love?

Sometimes the questions come by phone, sometimes by letter. Sometimes people are wondering how to get the plastic top off the spice bottle with arthritic hands. Sometimes people are wondering how they are supposed to make dinner for their children when there isn't enough time to get to the grocery store. Sometimes people are asking about a recipe that someone who loved them served a long time ago.

Sometimes people aren't really asking about cooking at all.

Marlene, which is how she introduces herself on the hot line, started answering the phone lines three years ago, after seven years in other public relations jobs at the company. Her workplace is a dark wood-trimmed cubicle surrounded by recipe books and seasoning charts and dozens of pungent glass jars.

At first Marlene is a little reluctant to share the confidences of her callers. She doesn't want to appear as though she is making fun of them. After all, isn't it understandable, when you think about it, how someone could think allspice is actually a mix of all spices? Or that the best way to open the plastic shaker cap on the cayenne pepper is to poke a needle through the holes? Or that grilling is a perfectly fine way to cook a Bag'n Season chicken dinner?

Marlene: "Sometimes I have to just stop and say, 'Could you hold a moment?' A plastic bag on top of the grill? I think that's asking for trouble. I would never do that. But how can I just tell the woman, 'Oh my God, no! What's wrong with you?' So you say, 'Could you hold a minute?' "

Marlene is known for making connections with callers, for sensitively responding to their problems, for patiently answering even the questions they hadn't thought to ask. You know, pure vanilla is like good wine. The older it gets, the better it gets.

Not long ago, a construction worker from Ellicott City called. He was searching for a way to season his homemade beef jerky. But McCormick doesn't make a beef jerky seasoning; Marlene sent the man samples of hickory-smoked salt and teriyaki sauce instead. Then, while visiting a supermarket on a work trip to check out competitors' products, she spied a small bottle of another company's beef jerky seasoning.

"Can I borrow a few dollars?" she asked her boss on the way to the checkout.

Marlene sent the man the bottle. When he called to thank her, he and Marlene got to talking. They talked so much they discovered they grew up in the same neighborhood -- Highlandtown -- and knew all sorts of folks in common. They talked about Marlene's son Kris, an Army Ranger in Tacoma, Wash., a super kid who happens to love beef jerky.

Well, said the man. I'll just have to make him some, won't I?

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a 73-year-old widower on a fixed income and retired. I have led a full and eventful life. I worked for a company for over thirty years before I retired. I worked hard and had a good reputation for my work ethics.

I recently lost my wife of 47 years and have had a great amount of time to think. One of the most sought after emotions is recognition for a job well done, so I'm taking the time out to thank you for the many years of satisfied use of your products, especially the Schilling Coarse Ground Pepper.

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