Recipes by Mom

The version of this piece published on Eat, Darling, Eat uses softer, less-critical language about my mother. I understand why they made those choices, but it’s important to me as a person that other women who might not have had a great relationship with their mothers know that they’re not alone. My mom had good qualities and bad, and I have good qualities and bad, and that shared humanity — not some gauzy memory of a perfect mother who didn’t exist — is what binds me to her. 

My mother’s recipes drove me nuts. As a young mom trying to replicate the food I had as a child, I leaned on her slips of information, stained and creased, for direction. I quickly found that she used a shorthand that rendered the information undecipherable.

I’d taken cooking classes as a kid, from the suburban-Chicago park district courses offered in the ancient kitchen of the local community center to the required basic cooking class in the Allied Arts portion of middle school. I wanted to learn to cook for the same reason I wanted to learn to play piano; I liked to play around with the medium, to produce something that others would enjoy.

As the youngest of five, I was at Mom’s side for the bulk of the household duties; cooking, shopping, running errands. I worked with my mother in the kitchen, loving the smells of cinnamon and flour dusting the air, the crisp chicken in the electric frying pan, the buttery saute of celery/peppers/onions on Thanksgiving morning. Heaven smelled like bacon.

But when I started using her written materials in my own kitchen, I was confounded by her obliqueness. Where there would normally be a list of ingredients, she opted for groupings of ingredients in steps. This meant that I had to sift through the whole recipe to divine the complete ingredients, and backfill a shopping list before I ever started.

To my mind, and according to my training, the recipe should run in the following order:


Preheat temp

Pan preparation (“grease 9X13 pan”)

Ingredients list (complete)


The Joanne C. Banaski method made me uneasy. I hewed more to my father’s orderly ways. Generally, if she did something one way, I did the opposite. I wasn’t a rebel by any measure, just attentive to my alliances, even when I was young. Mom liked paisley? I liked geometrics, like Dad. Mom left threads hanging on all her homemade items? I snipped every possible thread—twice. I thus intentionally differentiated myself from her.

If she left “unsweetened chocolate” out of the ingredients, what else might she have left out? She also didn’t mention that you have to melt the unsweetened chocolate. What other necessary bits has she forgotten? Next to “unsweetened chocolate”, she has written “use cuoa substitute”. I think she meant “cocoa substitute”, which I know from her brownie recipe means 3T dutched cocoa plus 1T vegetable oil. But anyone else using this recipe wouldn’t know what she meant.

Maybe this was her way of maintaining her magic, hiding a secret up her sleeve to entrance her audience into wonder. Maybe she forgot it herself until she had written the first part of the recipe, then tacked it on.

Perhaps, and more likely, while she wrote the recipe, she thought through “How to Make Pinwheels”, and wrote down the steps as she executed them in her head. Blend wet ingredients, sift the dry, mix together.

And she didn’t even say “mix together”!

Mom was a tactile person. She cooked and baked, sewed things that were her own invention, played piano and was a marvelous artist. Her hands were covered in paint or flour or needle pricks. She planted our large yard with her own hands, often saying that digging in the dirt was good for the soul.

I’m now older than the age I best remember her at, 45. I’m now working from my own copies of her recipes, which I rewrote for my own purposes, ingredients first. My hands smell of garlic, chocolate stains the fronts of all my aprons, and from March to October, dirt resides under my nails.

Digging through my recipe box, I discover my own handwritten recipes lack critical information as well. All ingredients have been listed – using my own shorthand – but I have left off all instructions, as those are the parts I can do without thinking. I also leave off the title, which bewilders my family, and occasionally, me as well. By now, I have discovered my own Joanne C. Banaski tendencies; I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, my pies are sloppy, hand-hewn “rustic” concoctions, and children are drawn to my playfulness wherever I go. Just like her.

But I think I’ll leave this trail of magic spells in incomplete recipes for my family to follow, and leave them to wonder how they will ever conjure the feeling of being in my kitchen, in my cloud of cocoa and flour and sugar, the smoke and mirrors I use to communicate my undying love in my own mysterious hand.

image (1).jpg
Mom, Meggy, and Dad, circa Easter 1971-2


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