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.