Posted on April 18th, 2013
Back before I even remotely knew my way around a kitchen, back when a typical dinner consisted of some item from the vegetarian column of the frozen food aisle, I asked my grandmother for the recipes of some of my favorite things – chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, vegetable soup, and other simple things. “The basics,” I told her, telling her loud and proud I was finally interested in learning how to cook. My mother once made a batch of rice krispie treats that went so badly we had to throw it all out, including the pan (to this day I still don’t know how that’s even possible), and that was about the extent of her cooking skills – but my grandmother, with all her years of professional catering behind her, was the perfect candidate for culinary mentor.
The first recipe she gave me was for her chewy, caramelized, salad plate-sized chocolate chip cookies, the most notable and delicious of her regular cycle of baked goods. What an auspicious beginning to my sure-to-be-celebrated culinary future!
What she put in front of me went something like this:
1 lb. butter
4 ½ flour
This – this was not what I was expecting. No instructions, no cooking temperature or time, not even a full list of ingredients or quantities. Follow-up questions elicited only a series of exasperated ”Just make cookies,” despite how many times I told her that I didn’t know how, that being the point of this whole exercise. This was no time for cookie-related poetry; I wanted details!
Whether she meant it or not, what she did the day she gave me her chocolate chip cookie recipe was throw me off the end of the dock to teach me how to swim in the lake. After my initial frustration, I set about untangling the simple set of words she’d handed me, what felt like an overwhelmingly large open space with a small and well-defined target. But the desire to recreate an item so entwined with my childhood was an unremitting tug, and I moved forward despite not knowing where to start. It required years of baking and studying other people’s cookie recipes for me to understand the basic concept and chemistry of good cookies, before I could even think about turning my sights back to this bewildering series of recipe-like words. Then there were dozens of failed attempts, months of adjusting ingredient quantities and cooking temperatures and of learning to read the batter for corrections and to know the exact moment the cookies should come out of the oven. Eventually it all fell into place, and I began to churn out batch upon batch of cookies indistinguishable from the ones on which I was raised. Victory! Now all I had to do was repeat the process with the stack of other cryptic recipe-puzzles she’d given me in the meantime.
What I know now, years after trying to decipher that first recipe, is that my grandmother’s idea of a recipe is generally more like a set of cues or a series of way-markers – a sequence of words, numbers, and phrases carefully chosen to remind her of the most important bits. When she handed me, kitchen novice, that first recipe, it presented itself as an undecipherable piece of poetry, each word packed with a world of intended meaning I couldn’t even begin to know how to translate. For its author, bolstered by decades of cooking experience, the sparsely populated notecard said everything she needed to know. No need to specify eggs, salt, or chocolate chips, when you know they’re there. No need to explain that one should start by mixing together the sugars and butter, when it’s what you’ve done to hundreds of batches of cookies over many years. To most audiences, “cookies” is just a word, but to her, it says it all.
There are many dozens of recipes just like the one I first tackled, all scattered throughout my grandmother’s kitchen. They’re all short lists of ingredients, connected here and there with brackets and arrows, most annotated with a cooking temperature or a warning of over-mixing or a reminder of a favorite serving dish to use. Sometimes they take on a bit of an e.e.cummings quality, indentations and line spacing intentionally placed and packed with just as much meaning as the words between them. In many cases only one or two key words distinguish one recipe from another amongst the dozens of similar ones scrawled down in her notes, and some recipes contain only those differences (once she once sent me for chocolate cake says only “just yolks, [up arrow] bs, 15 longer,” all referring to how it compares to her previously favored chocolate cake recipe, which I then spent over 40 minutes trying to find in my recipe file).
At first I found all of this frustrating, but the more time I spend with these stripped-down recipes the more I appreciate them for their efficiency and openness. A conventional recipe, with all of its specificity and definitive statements, can seem confining and restrictive (even if it doesn’t need to be), bringing along with it a disquieting need to punctuate the cooking process with reassuring check-ins. My grandmother’s recipes, on the other hand, bring along an empowering sense of creativity and intuition, only the most essential elements floating to the surface. Roaming wild within the open spaces of her recipes is where I’ve learned what I really wanted to know about cooking, though I couldn’t have predicted that back at the beginning. It’s where I learned to trust my intuition and to trust the food itself, and the vast majority of the time it’s all worked out wonderfully. If, back at the start, she had handed me the complete, detailed recipe for those chocolate chip cookies, I wouldn’t know even close to what I know about baking today.
Someday I’ll be the recipient of all those stacks and notebooks and binders full of recipes, and all that poetry will be mine to decipher, and mine to pass along to some other unsuspecting future cook. They have no idea what they’re in for.