Posted by: molly | September 24, 2010

No, You Can’t Have My Recipe

I don’t have a whole lot of memories of Nona, the little Italian woman I knew while growing up.  I remember the green linoleum in every room of her house, the grapes she grew in her little back yard (which I now suspect was for more than just the joy of growing grapes and ended up in a basement I never saw), and the way that she always smelled–like garlic and Italian herbs.  Whenever we saw her she also provided us with the most amazing Italian cookies.  Even as a child still in the stage which dessert which only consisted of either chocolate chip cookies or ice cream, I knew these cookies were rich and tasty.

I remember once my mother trying to learn how to make these cookies.  Nona didn’t have a recipe for these.  She had be making these cookies since she was a girl in Italy.  As she began explaining the process, my mother soon decided this would not be as simple as first thought.

“You start with a cup of flour.”  Easy enough.  Except to Nona a cup of flour was not approximately 5 oz. of flour in a conveniently marked measuring cup.  “Not just any cup of flour,” she explained, “but this cup,” she said while holding up a cup that was probably older than my mother.  So much for the perfectly measured 5 oz.   As this point Nona proceeded to explain that a single batch of cookies contained at least 9 eggs, which was when my mother decided that maybe it would be better to leave ‘Nona Cookies’ as a twice a year treat.

For Nona cooking was not a science.  It was an art.  For her even baking was a carefully practiced art form.  To have her reduce her knowledge of cooking to a recipe was like asking Rembrandt to provide you with a paint-by-number to duplicate his paintings.

I learned to make pie crust from my aunt:  2 parts flour, 1 part butter, a little bit of sugar, and enough ice water to make it right.  The last for there is key.  It took (and still sometimes takes) some less than perfect (read hard and nasty) pie crusts to work out that last part.  There is a feeling to the right type of pie crust.  I really can’t tell you what it is.  I would rather show you.

Moses consistently makes fun of my inability to follow a recipe.  When I declare to him that I followed a recipe for dinner he usually laughs.  After a little bit of prodding he usually find a confession of “well, I didn’t have any milk so I….”  I once tried to convince him that I had followed a recipe in which I only had 2 of the 5 ingredients.  This is partly my nature (which drives my highly perfectionistic family up the wall) but it is also purposeful.

Books can now teach you almost everything you can think to ask about cooking.  Everything else you can find on the internet.  Thankfully, I had a good base on which to build my cooking experience.  I knew how to brown meat, chop vegetables, boil noodles, and make a stir-fry.  I could have survived on that information alone, though Moses would probably have tired of this.  So I began learning new things by reading and listening to other people talk about how they made food.  To be honest, I feel like I learn more watching someone show me how to cook instead of being handed a slip of paper with a list of ingredients.

There are many women out there who know so much about cooking.  They can time a meal to get 5 dishes on the table at the same time (while helping 2 or 3 kids with homework and making phone calls).  They have learned from attempts that succeeded as well as failed ones.  They have years of knowledge that I can’t have–unless they teach me.  They are the people I want to learn from.  Those who have gone before.  We live in a culture that doesn’t really invest in teaching the next generation.  Sure we work a lot to give our kids great educations but how many people really take time to teach their daughters how to be good cooks?  Somehow it seems we want everyone to start out behind just like we did.

I can only really teach those who are true beginners–in the “how do you cook hamburger” category.  And yet I am striving to get better all the time.  I want to learn to cook well so I can help other women learn to cook well.  In the context of community and mentorship I don’t want your recipe.  I to spend time getting to know you and learning how you do things.  If you ever ask me for my recipe I will probably not rudely refuse you.  Instead, I may just suggest something a little more personal.



  1. I thought of you tonight as I made dinner . . . I attempted to depart from a recipe I knew worked and that we enjoyed. I thought, “I’ll be creative and adventurous like Molly.” Alas, it did not turn out. But I did try something new. I love what you’ve written here. Thank you for being such an intentional and loving friend.

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