No Recipe

“If you two don’t stop making all this noise, I swear I’m going to get my broom and beat you with it.”

I’m thinking of my mother, the day after her birthday.

That’s a horrible quote to start with, perhaps, but it did happen. My brother and I were wrestling around on the living room floor during some TV show that Mom wanted to watch, and we would not be quiet after repeated warnings. So she went to the hall closet, brought back the broom, and started whapping us with it.

We both froze, looked up at the sight of our kindly mother beating us, and burst out laughing.

I think that prompted more beatings with the broom.

We were teenagers at that point (maybe I was only 12, but close enough). Gentle hits with a broom weren’t going to make us cry.

And my Mom is the sort of sweet person who you’d never expect to hurt anyone. I want to say, “She’d never hurt a fly.”

But that’s not true at all. Bugs are definitely on her target list.

Sure, she freaks out when she sees one. But after about five seconds of fear, she becomes violent. She’ll grab a newspaper or shoe or flyswatter (or a broom) and beating the poor insect invader into pulp.

Telemarketers also feel the sting of her wrath. For a while when I was younger, we had a rash of crank calls and telemarketers around dinner time. Mom had a whistle placed near the phone just for these occasions. She’d pick up the phone, say “Hello… oh, it’s YOU again.”


My wife knows this from firsthand experience, the accidental victim of a whistle-blower.

Be careful when you call my Mom.

I share those memories not because they are typical, but because they’re so unlike everything else I remember. Mom was always supportive of me while I was growing up, and she remains so today.

She would sit for hours as I practiced or played piano, and she would always tell me how “One day God is going to use that talent of yours, I know it.”

She was generally soft-spoken and slow to anger, and she patiently worked to help her husband and two boys get it all together.

I’m not saying my Dad didn’t do anything. One of his favorite things to do (or so it seemed to me) was to cook for us. Sometimes he’d use recipes to make various family favorites, like “tunnpannkakor” (Swedish pancakes) or cinnamon sugar cookies. (There’s a link to a recipe there… it’s close to what I remember. I might need to make these soon!)

But most of the time, Dad just winged it, cooking whatever he felt like, however he wanted. He’d grill up chicken and hot dogs and burgers. He always made delicious combinations of spices and vegetables, usually some kind of hearty chicken soup. It seemed like his recipe was, “What do we have to choose from? Hmm… I’ll use this, and this, and that, and… that. Done.”

My mom always used recipes, measuring everything out precisely. If the recipe says 1/8 tsp, then you better use 1/8 tsp and not accidentally 1/4. Everything had to be exact, because that’s how you made that particular dish. That’s just how it was. Follow the recipe, and you won’t mess up.

She’d make “mostaccioli,” which is actually just the name of the pasta she used, something I only learned after growing up, moving out, and shopping for myself. It’s ground beef with tomato sauce (“you need the 29 oz can”) and tomato paste (“just one 15 oz can to thicken it up”) mixed together and spooned over a bed of the aforementioned pasta. Sometimes she’d make italian sausage for my Dad and brother. Looking back, it’s remarkably simple, but to me, it was an Italian masterpiece.

There was the famed “tomato soup casserole,” egg noodles and ground beef with a couple cans of Campbell’s soup poured in and stirred up. Her pizza-burgers are one of my brother’s favorites: saucy meat covered in mozzarella and piled on a half of an English muffin, then baked to perfection.

Raspberry Poke Cake was also a delight. It’s just a normal yellow or white cake cooked up according to the directions, then poked with a fork repeatedly. Then you spoon raspberry Jell-O across the top and put it in the refrigerator to cool.

She possessed some culinary magic–at least so it seemed to 10-year-old me.

No matter how complex or simple the dish, she had a recipe and she followed it.

For years, she would make chicken ramen soup for my brother and me to share.  While we ate, she would read us a nighttime story before bed. I had forgotten all about it for several years until we had some again, and I realized “This is the soup you always used to make!” Imagine, being delighted at the discovery of 20 cent packs of ramen noodles, with their 1g of sodium.

By then, I was starting to earn money here and there, and I was often accompanying my parents to the grocery store. So I was able to either get my own ramen or beg them to buy some. I made cheap ramen all the time–always cooked in a pot with boiling water, never just microwaved, in order to get the flavor and texture just right. It got to the point that I knew exactly where to fill the pot to make the ramen, so I didn’t measure out the water.

My mom would ask me, “Why don’t you measure out the 2 cups of water? You need 2 cups. We have a measuring cup right on the shelf in the cabinet, you know.” After all, that was the recipe.

As all parents know, there’s no recipe for raising children. Certainly, we benefit from the experience and advice of others who have gone before, but every kid is different and it’s all guesswork until you find what’s best for your child and you.

My parents struggled with how best to raise my brother, and then once they thought they had something figured out, they discovered that my personality was completely different from his. Similar problems needed different solutions. So they struggled all over again, doing the best they could to help me out.

I’m sure my mom would have been very happy back then to find a “recipe” of some kind.

I’m also sure she didn’t need one. Her mothering magic–unconditional love–was enough.

Happy birthday to an amazing woman that I am proud to call “Mom.”

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