The Reassurance of Recipes

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It has been a rough winter for me. There were serious illnesses in the family with the death of a dear cousin. There is more ahead as another relative has a terminal diagnosis. I, too, had some health problems, but fortunately mine, although very uncomfortable, were mendable. Mainly the solutions to my issues involved just letting the days and weeks pass by until the unpleasant symptoms disappeared. All in all, though, this was a very bewildering time. I was never totally clear what the correct thing to do was either for my relatives or me. Should I spend more time in New York with my cousins? Should I call the doctor again to tell her how miserable I felt? There were many decisions to make, but had only my instincts and little information to guide my actions.

I am almost healed now, but there were many hours when I just slept or watched crime shows on television – in between Amtrak trips. Yet, there was a period of three or four days when I had a spurt of energy and decided to cook with the hope it would be a positive diversion.

I always have bags of various dried beans in the house and decided to use up as many I could. I did go out to shop for basic fresh ingredients like carrots, celery, and onions. These were things I could use in multiple creations. I also bought chicken breasts, ground turkey, canned tomatoes, limes and apples. There were a few less common items that ended up in my shopping cart – cilantro, ginger, pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds), and coconut milk. In my freezer I had a lot of home-made stock from last Thanksgiving’s turkey carcass. During my food production surge I used these items to make a whole series of yummy dishes that I froze for later consumption.

I made a fabulous creamy celery and apple curry soup (no beans here); white bean and chicken chili; red kidney bean turkey chili with maple syrup; green split pea soup; maple syrup flavored baked beans with tomatoes (great with hot dogs); pasta e fagioli; and coconut carrot and ginger soup. A word about the maple syrup emphasis. Last fall I visited a friend in Vermont. We went to the King Arthur Flour factory where an author was handing out samples from her “Maple” cookbook. I bought the book and am slowly trying her recipes. I never would have thought that maple syrup could add such an exotic splash to chili.

My kitchen was a smell bonanza with vats of soups and stews bubbling on the stove or in the slow-cooker. This cooking spree was therapeutic and calming in the midst of the seeming chaos around me. It gave me a purpose different from the need to take care of myself and others. It offered an in-home adventure of mostly new recipes that required a lot of enjoyable tasting for the correct seasonings. I felt virtuous as I used items from my pantry so that I wouldn’t end up throwing them out five years from now. I knew I would be providing healthful meals for my kids, grandkids and me for weeks to come. The only problem was that I had to scavenge to find enough containers to hold everything, and then to locate freezer space to tuck it all away. After the cooking the only thing remaining was a bag of dried lima beans. I will figure out something clever to do.

As I look back on my flurry of activity I come away with an overwhelmingly peaceful sensation. I think this emanates from having a plan. Cooking allowed me to have some control within the turmoil. Following a recipe that called for one tablespoon of curry powder, five cups of cut-up carrots, or a can of coconut milk gave me some guidance about what to do. I didn’t have to make any wild guesses concerning what ingredient to use or the next action step. The recipe told me how long the cooking would take – 4-6 hours on low for the slow cooker, or one hour for chili on the stove. If I followed the recipe I would see the results of my work. Guidelines were right in front of me. Certainly I could have added a little more salt or pepper, but I didn’t have to conjure up the complete dish from infinite options. .

Recipes gave some predictability about what the outcomes would be. There were no agonizing judgments to make and no dark hours of wondering what to do next. As long as I could read, measure, and cook I created some semblance of order. I know that there will be untoward events as I move on in my life, but I can’t predict what they may be. I have learned through my kitchen experience that, while I may not be able to control the uncontrollable, I may be able to find a recipe to shop for, plan and measure out, and be confident to achieve a result that will shoo away uncertainty and soothe my spirit.


  1. Still the Lucky Few

    May 2, 2016

    How wonderful to open my mailbox and find an article by you, Marian! I am so sorry you have had a hard time these past few months. It seems you have braved the worst of it, and are on the mend. I liked your metaphor that cooking with a recipe is like living with a plan—at least, that’s what I think you meant! I hope you are completely better soon, and that we will hear from you before too long.


    May 2, 2016

    Great to hear from you. My husband and I have a silent contest of making no complaints. It’s not a rivalry. It’s not shame or swallowed pain, we just don’t talk about it unless the pain is exceptional. It was his idea. I tend to be more vociferous, but he is stoic to a fault so I try to match his strength. The good news is that when I fill out a form for a doctor with every kind of ailment that attaches to an older person, I leave the page largely blank. I don’t have heart disease or diabetes, have never smoked, rarely drink–what a dull life–and on and on. I have had cancer three times, each one taking a bigger bite out of my body, but I’m still functioning well. In spite of all the things I don’t have, I sometimes feel tied together with baling wire. Yet the absence of complaint seems to lighten the load. It slips to the back of my mind and is gone for long periods. I’m good!

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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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