Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

When I was teaching genetics to undergraduates, one of the things (among many) that alarmed me was that none of my students had ever made homemade gingerbread cookies at Christmas. So I hosted an end-of-semester party at my apartment for my students, and for entertainment we made and decorated gingerbread cookies.

My kitchen memories with my mom are some of my favorites. We always started our baking adventures in the fall. The crisp weather, the changing leaves, and football bring all this sharply to my mind. There were pecan pies, pineapple upside-down cakes, fudge, divinity (that never ever set), cookies, and assorted other experiments.

I am the youngest of three children, ten years behind my sister, fourteen behind my brother. Since my dad worked the graveyard shift, my mom and I were often alone in the evenings, and we would bake for entertainment. Quite often we would pull out her trusty batter-splattered, chocolate-stained, red-and-white checked Better Homes and Gardens cookbook to decide on a baking project, and as we assembled the ingredients, we would discover that we didn’t have the correct ingredients. Some people would find another recipe. Some people would rush to the grocery store. But, we usually embarked on an adventure of substitutions.

My mom was pretty smart. She had years of experience in the kitchen at the side of her mom and years preparing meals on the fly for her own family, so we would start substituting ingredients. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But we learned a lot and had fun in the process.

I remember one Christmas, when my brother was home. He wanted to make gingerbread cookies, and we had very few of the ingredients required. So few in fact, that even Mom said, “I don’t think we can do that until I can get back to the store.”

My brother, who had earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at this point replied, “I’m a chemist, and cooking is just chemistry. We can make gingerbread cookies with what we have.”

And so we did. They certainly smelled like gingerbread cookies. And they looked like gingerbread cookies. They even tasted like gingerbread cookies, but they didn’t feel like gingerbread cookies. You could’ve broken a window (or several teeth) with those cookies. Beware of a kitchen chemist who says “Trust me.”

Now I am sharing the kitchen with my daughter. And I am determined that her college genetics professor will not have to teach her to make gingerbread cookies.

Today my daughter and I made banana bread; she did a great job smashing the bananas. She helped me measure and count the ingredients, laughed as the mixer sent the thick batter flying all over the kitchen and helped me “grease” the loaf pan. She diligently watched the window of the oven, letting me know that the bread was baking.

I decided not to follow the recipe exactly but instead try some “heart healthy” substitutions. By the time I had substituted ground flax seed at a 3-to-1 ratio for the shortening and used whole-wheat flour for half the flour, I had created banana bread that had 5.6 grams of dietary fiber per slice. A slice of banana bread is not very big.

My daughter took two bites of her banana bread and cried “Juice! Juice! I need juice.”

It’s sort of like eating a piece of banana-flavored Metamucil®.

Beware of biologists who are going to take a standard family recipe and make it good for you.

© 2010 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “In the Kitchen with Mom

  1. Terri J says:

    ew!!! My grandmother would not be pleased!

  2. Michele says:


    My grandmother (and my mom) are probably laughing their heads off. By the way, slather it in butter and microwave for 15 seconds, and it’s quite good.


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