40: Johanna’s Recipes

40: Johanna’s Recipes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Johanna’s Recipes

The same way one tells a recipe, one tells a family history. Each one of us has our past locked inside.

~Laura Esquivel

When I was small, maybe eight or nine years old, I asked my great-grandma, Johanna, to share her recipes with me because she was the best cook I had ever known. She spoke only German, which I had been discouraged from speaking, so I learned by watching her as she cooked at her daughter’s stove. I followed her every movement as I scribbled notes on index cards.

She was baffled by my need for precision in measurement. I was, even then, a scientist at heart and in manner.

“It’s an art,” she said, shaking her head.

“But how much nutmeg goes in?” I asked with a child’s need for certainty. “A quarter teaspoon? Should I list it by weight in grams?”

“This much will do.” She showed me some spice in the well of her palm.

“But how much is that?” I asked again, frustrated by the ambiguity of her answers.

“It’s different every time,” she said. “You’ll just know.”

As a child, I did not understand about the potency of herbs and spices. Nuts, seeds, stems, leaves, flowers, and roots varied from plant to plant, batch to batch, year after year, and species to species. Use a little more if it’s been sitting a while. Use a little less if it’s freshly ground. It was all done by feel, smell and taste. No dish could ever be recreated precisely. Each dish was a separate work of art, uniquely her own. Every recipe was an approximation of what she might make on any other day, in any other place, with any other products.

While I was cleaning this week, I opened the lid of the old wooden box that holds those recipe cards. I came across one—for her applesauce cake—that I had placed in the back and never used, deeming it indecipherable. I read the notes I had made as a child and I finally understood all that ambiguity and uncertainty I saw in the ingredients and quantities. I saw Johanna’s wisdom, resilience, and foresight in all the wiggle room she built into her recipes.

She left room to account for temperature, humidity, the type of baking pan, the source of heat for the oven—did she once use wood stoves? Coal? Gas?

She accounted for the type of apples—was it a good year with sweet apples? Were they tart? Were they dry? If so, add honey and molasses for moisture. If not, use powdered sugars.

She accounted for economics—she’d been able to afford butter once, but she’d escaped to the States during a war. She could make due if only oil was available. And even if she only had oil, she made sure that her family had cake.

On that recipe card, I saw so much of Johanna’s life, and I realized that I would never be able to replicate her cake. Hers was gone. Her art, intangible and fleeting, was her own. And I knew that any cake I made using her recipe would be my own, my own art.

So I made her apple cake, honoring her memory as best I could. I used organic cinnamon applesauce from new apple varieties she had never known. Organic Vermont butter with less fat content than the German pastry butter she would have recognized. Organic white flour and cane sugar without the bleaching she would have expected. Organic dark raisins, plumped as she had shown me. The cake rose and turned golden, as it should. And it tasted an awful lot like a memory.

~Beth Krone-Downes

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