May 4 – Inside Mother’s Cracker Box Kitchen

by Sara Etgen-Baker

I learned to cook standing alongside Mother but often complained about her cramped, cracker box kitchen. “I hate cooking in here! There’s not enough room to do anything!” Mother stopped what she was doing; grabbed her wet dish towel; and snapped it on my buttocks. “Don’t be so fussy!”

Despite its cramped quarters, I loved being in Mother’s kitchen and cooking with her. The first thing she taught me was how to read a recipe, measure ingredients, and make chocolate chip cookies. The recipe was simple enough for an 8-year old; before long I knew the recipe by heart.

One day while preparing dinner, a special delivery package arrived. Mother stopped what she was doing and tore open the package. “Oh my! It’s my mother’s recipe file box!”  She gingerly opened the recipe box and sniffed its contents. “It smells just like my mother’s kitchen!”

Over the next several hours Mother and I sat at her kitchen table pouring over the box’s contents. The yellowed cards were dog-eared, stained, and written in Granny’s penmanship; the same penmanship I’d seen on the letters, cards, and notes she’d sent me. The cards were spattered with grease stains and marked with thumbprints. And the hand in which they were written had visibly changed between the first recipe and the latter ones.

As my fingers graced the same cards hers had many years ago, I remembered watching Granny while she cooked in her kitchen. She rarely used her recipe cards. Yet when Mother and I cooked in her cracker box kitchen, we often referred to Granny’s recipe cards. Frequently, though, the cards just listed the ingredients without exact quantities; and all too often the recipe’s vague language frustrated me. “Mother, what does ‘use enough flour to make stiff dough’ mean?’ Exactly how much is ‘a pinch of salt?’ What is a ‘scant of this?’ How much is ‘a spoonful?’ What does ‘simmer until it smells heavenly’ mean?

“Recipes aren’t meant to be precise; they’re merely meant to jog the memory of how to make those dishes.”

“But you know the recipes by heart so why do you keep the cards?”

“I want to study the original recipe,” she murmured blinking back the tears, “I can’t explain it to you.” She turned away from me and continued cooking.

Frequently, I watched Mother take out a single recipe card and linger over it. I was young and didn’t yet understand what the cards meant to her. Later, I realized that Mother probably just wanted to hear Granny’s voice and remember the past.

Like Mother, I occasionally long for the past and yearn to be with her. I close my eyes and find myself back in her cracker box kitchen. I re-create her chocolate chip cookies from memory; remove them from my oven; and eat one savoring the warm, buttery goodness and the delicious feel of gooey chocolate slowly melting in my mouth. And I swear I hear Mother whispering, “See! You didn’t need the recipe!”

A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing. 

Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.

6 responses to “May 4 – Inside Mother’s Cracker Box Kitchen

  1. This so lovely Sara. I have my mother’s cook book that looks just like you described. Yellowing pages covered with stains. In time I will pass it, probably to my youngest who is into cooking. I loved reading your frustration about quantities etc’. This seems to be such a universal theme.

    • Sara Etgen-Baker

      Thanks, Ariel, for your kind words. I’m glad the piece triggered some memories for you.

  2. Your piece reminded me of the cooking skills that I gleaned from my own mother over the years. The time spent with a great aunt who was a stickler for measuring things precisely which I don’t do. Fond memories for sure.

  3. Sara Etgen-Baker

    Thank you, Patricia, for reading the piece and commenting about your own cooking memories.

  4. Hi Sara. I enjoyed reading your piece as it brought me back to a time when we lived next door. Our kitchen was also a small cracker box, but momma made some wonderful dishes. Thanks for the memories.

    • Sara Etgen-Baker

      How wonderful of you, Rhoda, to read the piece and to comment. I remember being inside your house; like ours, it was small. Your mom was always sweet to me and to my mother. What great memories. Thanks again. Stay safe & healthy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s