This post was originally published 10/04/09 on my former blog.
A few years ago, my momma made me a family recipe book. She typed up a number of family recipes, including my Auntie Mo’s applesauce cake, and the 24-hour salad with marshmallows and pineapple and canned oranges (think ambrosia with the awesomeness dial cranked to 11) that we serve as a side dish next to the turkey at all the major family events. Bless her heart, she typed up about a dozen recipes for me, and wrote on the first page that any time that I wanted another recipe, I just needed to ask and she would type it up to slip into my recipe book.
The whole shebang consisted of a pretty photo album full of those clear page protectors. The first line on the first page, which was the letter from my mom, read, “Part of being in this family involves being able to cook.” Now, before anyone gets offended, let me explain. Culinary skills are not a prerequisite to joining the family. There are no tests or minimum aptitude requirements. No secret family vigilantes will show up to reclaim my wooden spoons or my fancy stand mixer if I happen to burn something accidentally. Not one of my many aunties would fall to the floor in full cardiac arrest if she happened to the find the Duncan Hines cake mix that’s just waiting in my lazy susan, lurking in the dark, itching to be loosed upon the world in its double-fudge deliciousness.
Granted, skill in the kitchen is required in our family only for the female members, but we like it that way. It’s a point of commonality between us, an anchor built on recipes and cooking times and oven temperatures. These are the mysteries to which the men are not invited. The funny thing is, though, that each woman’s recipes seem to be solely hers. No matter how they try, there is no one in the family who can bake my momma’s chocolate chip cookies quite as well as momma does. Believe me when I tell you that they have tried. No one would dream of asking anyone but the auntie known for them to bring cabbage rolls to a potluck, because they “belong” to the auntie who makes them best. We each have our own little places in the family, our own specialities. Mine are undefined as of yet, which is part of the waiting game, I suppose, something that won’t become solid until after the torch has been passed to my generation.
While it is expected in my family that I will be able to cook, and while I suppose some people might find that expectation a little offensive, I’m okay with it. I might feel differently if I struggled in the kitchen, or if I would rather be out doing other things, but I’m truly okay with the burden of the cooking. It helps to define me, to link me to my past and to what awaits me in the future. It also gives me a legitimate excuse to own a number of really nifty kitchen gadgets, like the cherry pitter that seems like something out of a dentist’s
torture instrument cabinet.
I like to create something from a bunch of random ingredients. It feels to me like painting, a little, where I have all the tubes of colours, and a general idea of how they fit together, but the final product is a bit of a lovely mystery. I almost never use recipes. I rarely measure. I truly cannot remember the last time I measured out dry ingredients like my mother taught me, scraping the top of the flour or whatever flat with the back of a butter knife. Instead, I just pour stuff in my palm, or eyeball it in the bowl, or stir it a little longer, or crank up the music until the stuff I’m working on looks about right.
The lack of recipes in my kitchen might be due to the fact that I really don’t like being told what to do. As if the person who wrote the recipe knows exactly how I like my food to taste. Not likely. It could also be linked to the fact that I don’t like the elitist slant on the kitchen, where things must be done “just so” to ensure tasty perfection. Here’s the thing: cooking is so much more about heart than it is about precision. I think we lose so much of the joy of it when we have to break it down into a series of pre-determined steps. There is no pizzaz when the cook is so busy worrying about having to wash the half-teaspoon measure so she can mete out the next thing on the list. Truly, who the heck cares!
I think there’s a real danger in distancing ourselves from the foods we prepare and enjoy with our families. Why would we want to keep the ingredients at the end of a spoon, or in that measuring cup? I think the love I feel for my family and friends, or the investment I’m making in myself if I’m cooking for one, is better transmitted to the food if I actually touch it. That may sound a little crunchy-granola-Earth-Goddess, like I’m reusing my papertowels and making my own shampoo (I don’t), but I think the good energy and love we have for the people we care about is radiated into the food we make for them.
Doesn’t it make sense to touch our food? I measure most of whatever I need in my palm; I know what half a cup or a tablespoon looks like in my hands. They are familiar to me and easier to wash than kitchen tools. Why are we reluctant to touch the food we make for our loved ones, which is such a personal exchange? I don’t use some sort of intermediary device to do the laundry. I touch it, dirty before the wash, wet after, warm and good-smelling after the dryer while I fold it and put it away. Food is so much more personal, even more personal than underwear, which is a strange thought. If I’m willing to handle the laundry, it only makes sense that I’m similarly willing to handle the food. Please note that I do wash my hands between handling the underwear and making dinner.
Additionally, I have this rather grandmotherly streak in my personality where I want to feed people, to nurture them and fill their bellies with delicious things. There is something so gratifying about the noises people make when they sit at my dinner table. I recently had a friend exclaim, “You mean, you can make risotto?” because she had never eaten it outside a restaurant, and I was comforted to know I was investing time in feeding my friends, a rarity in our crazy world, where it seems wasteful to spend forty minutes stirring and stirring and stirring one dish. I went camping with my brother and some friends not so long ago, and I took fresh chocolate chip cookies. I was swarmed by sweet-seeking people, eager to have something homemade to accompany their weekend of softball and beer. I have seen some of those people at other events since then, and they still remember me and my ziplock bags full of cookies.
People need to be nurtured by food. They truly need to experience food that has been prepared from scratch by someone who cares, because there isn’t enough caring left in the world right now.
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