One cup’s measure in time

One cup's measure in time
To this day, I marvel at recipes and cookbooks. The people who follow the surefire logic that mixes loosely fitted ingredients into something scrumptious impress me even more. However, what excites and concerns me is the danger in the slightest variance from a recipe – too much of this or too little of that – could send an entire dish into ruin.

This foreign land, this place where precision is itself a key ingredient – remains a region, where I am a traveler, not a resident.

It all began one frozen winter morning on the first day of home economics. Outside the second-story window of Mrs. Swanson's laboratory-like kitchen, the neighborhood is caked with snow. Cars and buses gently inch along, crunching over frozen highways and down lanes. Long pointy icicles extend from eaves, forming edgy crystalline trim around houses, now silent from children scurrying off to school.

In sharp contrast, the air inside becomes overly warm from pre-heating ovens. Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, milk, eggs, and vanilla line up along side measuring cups, measuring spoons, and other cooking utensils. A large mixing bowl waits empty near a free-standing mixer.

It's nearly 8:30 a.m. and the students, all high school girls, file through the door and fall into place at the rectangular chrome table with a grayish-silver Formica top.

Mrs. Swanson, a towering woman with broad shoulders and wide hips, strolls to and fro in front of the counter. The strings on her red and white gingham apron wrap around her full waist and tie in a limp bow at the center of her back. Bright red rickrack zigzags the apron's pattern, including the pockets, which are too small for her broad hands.

Holding open a copy of the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook she turns to the chapter, titled "Your Cakes – 250 Delicious Cakes."As she announces, "Today, we will learn how to bake Prize Chocolate Cake," Mrs. Swanson takes me to the land of cooking by the book – a place where recipes, like maps, lead me to a new way of being in the kitchen.

She begins by scooping a measuring cup to overflowing with flour from a tall round olive green canister, labeled "Flour." Next, still holding the cup over the canister, she takes a table knife and slowly levels the excess flour. Patiently and gently, she taps the bottom of the cup on the counter, levels the flour, taps the cup again, adds a spoonful more flour, taps, taps, and levels to perfection. Then, she raises it to above her eye level and announces to the class: "One cup of flour" and gently, slowly empties it into the mixing bowl.

Methodically, she continues this process with the dry ingredients: 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1-2/3 cups sugar. Next, in a saucepan over low heat, the wet ingredients: 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup milk, and 4 eggs. Finally, 4 ounces chocolate squares.

This is not my mother's kitchen. This is not the way my mother makes cake. Mother's recipes are not written down. Her cupped hands measure flour and sugar. Her pinched fingers weigh salt, spices, and herbs. Her Sicilian beauty diminishes her chaotic, yet intentional motions, as she throws together – from memory – her prize-winning chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.

To this day, I marvel at recipes and cookbooks. What delights and concerns me is the danger in slightest variance from a recipe – too much of this or too little of that ?

A resident of Southeast South Dakota for more than 30 years, Paula Damon is a popular columnist, keynote speaker, and freelance writer. Her column writing has won first place national and state awards in The Federation of Press Women competitions. For more information, email

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