My grandma, who’s in her mid-nineties now, always made us chicken noodle soup from scratch when we were sick. She even made the noodles herself, dropping the egg in a flour nest, mixing and mashing, spreading the dough thin and then cutting uniform strips of yellow…a simple soup, just as effective on a cold as any medicine in her cupboard.
I never met my great-grandmother Hazel, but I feel that I know this woman well, all because she and I share a favorite recipe, one for sugar cookies. I bet I’ve made her cookies a hundred times now, and every time I flour my pastry board and set my rolling pin into its familiar rhythm and pattern, I think of her. I picture that photo of her in a housedress, standing next to her kind, quiet husband…the man I named my son after. In my mind’s eye, I see her cat-eye glasses and her clunky shoes…and I love her.
My great-aunt Nadine never married or had children of her own and yet she mothered well, both as a teacher and by helping to raise her nieces and nephews as her own. She was strict and not especially affectionate, but the best way she loved us was with her cooking. She died almost a year ago, and each time she comes to mind, I picture her at the stove, stirring Thanksgiving gravy and nitpicking me about how slowly I peeled those sweet potatoes. I can’t think of her without smelling oven-roasted turkey and cinnamon-y pumpkin pie.
My mom is my favorite cook. She makes beautiful food. Whether it’s a Midwestern casserole or a delicately frosted cookie, she somehow makes it look lovely…and taste even better. She has such discernment when it comes to choosing recipes and she treats them as though they are God-breathed, never straying from the original instructions. When it comes to cooking and baking, I’d be lost without her.
When I met my husband in college, one of his four jobs was as a cook in the campus grill. He made a mean quesadilla and an even better tuna melt. He is reckless in the kitchen, substituting this ingredient and adding that one. Sometimes, it flops and sometimes it’s fabulous. But I’ll tell you one thing – nobody makes a better pancake. Nobody.
Andrew’s Grandma Fran is the most careful, precise, patient, well-prepared cook I have ever known. Every autumn, she dons her white apron and headscarf while heating her lefse grill. And if you’re lucky enough to be there when she does, she’ll hand you a piece of lefse straight from that griddle. You’ll generously butter it and sprinkle it with brown sugar, and you might not ever be the same. When you eat her food, you feel cared for.
I don’t know what hobbies my kids will pick up over the years. They may play tennis, guard a hockey net, build mythical creations out of Legos, command the halfpipe, work magic on the piano, or create meaning out of color on canvas. Maybe they’ll volunteer at the humane society, read every book on our shelves, or go hunting with their dad. And I don’t really care. All of that is for them to discover.
But my kids will cook.
Because in our family, cooking isn’t a hobby. Food is life and cooking is love.
I am by no means an exceptional cook. I am absent-minded and unbelievably slow. I start a recipe, assuming I have all of the ingredients, only to realize that I’m missing about half of them. I’ve been known to distractedly pour all of the ingredients into a bowl, forgetting to separate wet from dry, forgetting to sift, forgetting whether I’ve added three tablespoons or four. But I love it. I love every minute of it. I love the choosing of recipes, the mixing of ingredients and the eating of dough. Especially the eating of dough.
When I show up at a get-together with my almost three-year-old, my seven-month-old twins and a plate of cookies, people ask me how I have time to bake. The answer is always that I don’t. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t fit neatly into my day. But I need it. It’s my self care. And when I plug in my Kitchenaid and click the paddle into place, it kind of feels like dialing an old friend.
And on days when my throat is hoarse from being the lion to my daughter’s zookeeper and I can’t possibly handle fashioning another garden out of playdough, I find something for us to cook together. I put one baby in a carrier, sit the other in a laundry basket on the floor, scoot a stool up to the counter for my daughter, and so begin our cooking lessons.
My husband does the same thing, and those moments are among my favorite to watch. “You sure love eggs, don’t ya, Dad?” Harriet says enthusiastically while he flips them masterfully in the pan and explains how to tell when they’re just over easy, the way they both like them.
With me, she is always the dumper. Always the stirrer. Always the chocolate chip taster. And I tell her about doubling batches and why we put salt in our cookies and how any recipe with yellow cake mix in it is worth trying at least once. We talk about what all of the utensils are called, how to be safe around the stove, and why vanilla smells heavenly but tastes awful. She practices leveling cups of flour, cracking eggs and tasting dough. Especially tasting dough.
Sometimes we have eggshells in our batter. So we pick them out. Sometimes eggs fall on the floor. So the dog eats them. Sometimes there is sugar everywhere and we forget to set the timer for the cookies and we learn that margarine is NOT a substitute for butter. And I start to regret tackling this cooking thing with such a small, distractible, fast-moving child. And then I remember that food is life and cooking is love, so we eat some more dough.
I will never be able to teach my children to cook fancy things. No croquembouche, rhubarb foam garnish, or cheese soufflé will ever come into being in my kitchen. I just want them to know the basics. I want them to know that there’s no such thing as a bad cook – only people who haven’t been taught how to choose recipes wisely and how to season liberally. I want them to know that cookies continue to bake after you remove them from the oven, so you must…you must…take them out before they are ready and have faith that the hot pan will complete the task. I want them to know that the only proper place for a stand mixer is right out there on the counter. And I want them to know that cooking for another person is a sacred thing, whether it’s a four-course feast or a waffle from the toaster.
Mostly, I want them to know the recipes that mean so much to our families. Great-grandma Hazel’s cookies from my side. Grandma Fran’s lefse from Andrew’s side. Because recipes are stories…stories that families tell with their hands and with their hearts over years and decades and even centuries. Stories that are told to all of our senses and come to rest deep in our bellies. Stories that change so much and don’t change at all with each telling, with each generation. Because food is life, my friends. And cooking? Cooking is love.