Monday, May 31, 2010

Add Essence

My mother tapped the recipe. "We're out of oatcakes," she said. "I served the last of them to Bertha. One more thing to do." She sat there for a time, looking tired, feeling the corner of the page made from blue striped wallpaper and staring at the recipe as if wishing would make the oatcakes appear. My mother's recipe was easy, really. It called for:

a quarter pound of butter
a quarter pound of sugar
three tablespoons of golden treacle
one teaspoon of almond extract
and half a pound of oats

I call it my mother's recipe, though she may have copied it from somewhere; she was always copying down a recipe. But this one was not cut from a magazine, or copied from the newspaper, as she did, by rubbing wax paper over newsprint to collect the words and then rubbing the was paper on a page of the scrapbook, transferring all those little black newsprint letters. This recipe was in her handwriting: "melt butter, sugar, and treacle, and add essence. Take off the fire, add oats. Mix well, pour into a greased baking dish, and bake in an oven with a moderate fire for half an hour. Let cool. Cut into squares."

"Add essence." By this she meant "add almond extract," but when she made oatcakes she did add essence, her own essence. When I made oatcakes, they didn't taste anything like my mother's, though I followed my mother's recipe to the letter. They tasted good enough, but they tasted of my essence, not my mother's. There are no two cooks that can make the same dish; you'll find that essence in one and not the other. Or the essence in each is just different. I don't know. But you'll know the essence of a good cook when you find it in a dish. You'll just know. It was there in my mother's cooking.

from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

This is exactly how I feel about my mom. There's just something about her cooking that can't be duplicated. I have several of her 'tried and true' recipes, the ones that she now just does from memory. But no matter how hard I try, I just can't make them the same way she does. She definitely puts her own essence into her cooking.

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