I remember all those days when I would be in the kitchen with my mom. Helping.

Now that I am a cook and I sometimes invite children into the kitchen with me, I wonder how much help I really was. But as long as I didn’t talk too much while Mom was trying to measure, and as long as I kept stirring when she would tell me, “Keep stirring,” I was allowed to stay.

In her essay, “And She Took Flour: Cooking Lessons from Supper of the Lamb,” Denise Frame Harlan recalls being a similar assistant to her grandmother, although rarely was she allowed to touch.

My grandmother tolerated me in her kitchen because I clean well and I eat with deep appreciation.

The difference is I learned to cook from the one I was watching. She did not.

Learning to cook from another is not like learning to tie a shoe. Of course, there is more than one way to tie a shoe, but the lesson is about the tying, not about the shoe.

Cooking is different. It’s one thing to show someone how to take a cup of flour and add it to melting butter in a sauce pan to make a roux. It’s quite another thing to consider where the flour came from, whether we should even be using flour and butter, or what, after all, is the word “roux.” My mom just called it flour and butter.

I knew that I had learned to cook from my mother when my food finally started to taste like hers. It’s only been very recently, after more years on my own than under my mom’s tutelage now, that I have mastered her white gravy made with crumbled sausage, her green beans made with bacon grease and lots of salt, or her potato soup made very thick and cheesy.

But I realized I had become a cook on my own right when my food finally started tasting like my own. And it was good.

As we’ve both gotten older, mom and I, our cooking has changed – each in the opposite direction. She increasingly cooks with boxed and canned items, gravitating toward recipes with few ingredients and simple instructions. She’s already served a lifetime in front of the stove, and now, she’s tired when she comes into the kitchen. Simple is better.

I, on the other hand, have developed a love for food, not just cooking, and so I try to create dishes and meals, some elaborate, some plain, from the purest, basest ingredients. I shop at farmers markets and coops or around the edges of grocery stores. And any time I can, I try to make familiar processed foods from scratch.

Just this weekend, I made tomato soup beginning with tomatoes I grew in my own garden and had frozen last summer. When I told my mom, she said she might like the recipe.

Denise Frame Harlan found a similar departing of ways from the cooking of her grandmother and mother. She describes it like this:

So I did not learn to cook from my grandmother or my mother, who cooked largely from boxes and bags, or from home economics class. Nor did I wish to emulate any of the cooks I knew. They worked too hard. They seemed to be magicians and scientists, mathematicians and economists, all things I was not.

Harlan found her way to cooking, in fact, from a theology professor, one who read tearfully from Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb.

A man read a cookbook, and I met God again, as if I’d never met God at all, as if all my worship had been an attempt to tame a gorgeous world that did not need taming, but adoration.

So her story is the story we all live with food. Our very first experiences are in the homes of our birth, for most of us. But eventually, we find our way to food on our own terms, and sometimes, we even see God staring up at us from the pot or the plate.

And it makes all the difference.


I am writing today in community with my friends at thehighcalling.org. Each week , we are working our way through the book, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Today, we considered essays six through nine, in a section called “In the Kitchen.” Click on the button above to see what others are writing. Then, pick up the book yourself and join us for next Monday’s discussion.