I remember, as a child, how I marvelled at the careless carefree abandon with which the grandma’s of this world worked their magic in the kitchen. It was a smidgen of this and a smattering of that, a child’s handful of sugar and a working man’s hand of flour, a soupçon of this spice and a robust shaking of complementary spice. When all was said and done, the meals that come out of those kitchens were marvels to behold.
Lately, a friend asked me if I could share one of my “specialty” recipes. I was more than happy to oblige however when it came to writing it down on a recipe card, I wasn’t sure how many cups of this there were and how many tablespoons of that were needed. So how is it that those of us who cook and bake slowly find our way from exact measurements when in the kitchen to this freer yet more successful way of cooking and baking?
Sir Kenelm Digby, who died in 1665, provided insight into the workings of a cook’s mind. You see, there is a method to the madness of cooking and baking and Sir Digby documented that method so the generations that followed could better understand the thought process.
Without a timepiece in the kitchen back in the mid-1600s, a cook had to be creative in determining how long an egg should sit in boiling water before it was ready to serve. Sir Digby suggested that a perfectly boiled egg would result each and every time if it was cooked “while your pulse beats 200 strokes.”
There are references in Sir Digby’s recipes to add “as much as will cover a shilling,” and “as much as will lie on a three pence” and “one penny worth of cloves.” In other words, small pocket change became a measurement when cooking with Sir Digby.
And then there are the religious cooking directions such as “about a Hail Mary while” and “about an Ave Maria while” and “no longer than it takes to say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely.” In other words, 15 seconds, 20 seconds and a minute and a half respectively.
To my delight, I found his instructions for making gruel the most amusing of the lot. When making gruel, the cook is to “make it rise in a great ebullition, in great galloping waves”. With such a description, Sir Digby makes gruel sound like the most exciting of dishes one could possibly make in the kitchen. Great galloping waves? I think I might start using that as an expression whenever someone tells me something absolutely outrageous or unbelievable.
In the end, I’ve come to realize that the best cooks around are those who aren’t constrained by exact measurements. Exact measurements are nothing more than suggestions that leave the cook with ample place to bring his or her personality to each dish served up in his or her kitchen.
And so it is in life, isn’t it? The best moments in life are those that have a little give either way … a place for cautious yet carefree spontaneity, if you will. The next time someone asks you to be specific about your successes — no matter what those successes may be — remember to include a smidgen of livin’ in your “recipe for success.”
If a pinch in cooking is what can be held between a thumb and a finger, and a pugil is what can be held between a thumb and two fingers, then I recommend using a loving heart’s worth of caring and a mindful thought’s worth of empathy. Those are the sorts of recipes that make everything in life worthwhile, don’t you think?