I like to have a recipe. I can make anything with a recipe.  I’m not afraid to try exotic dishes or difficult techniques, as long as they are spelled out.  I could follow the instructions of an old-world Italian lady and make some fabulous gnocchi but I would beg her to write down the steps so that I could make it on my own later.

Recipe following is how I’ve lived much of my life. Combine 1 college education with 1 caring and successful husband.  Add 3 children and stir.  This turned out well for the most part until it didn’t.

Who knew ingredients could evolve? Who knew we’d eventually feel limited by a recipe? 

Ultimately, winging it became necessary; a random combination of internal and external mixing that led to a completely different, but richer end product.

Sharing Recipes

In the beginning, my husband and I even had recipes to follow and share with our children.  We had access to oodles of child-rearing books and we ate them up.  We deferred to Consumer Reports for the correct stroller, crib, monitor.  We controlled and extolled all aspects of feeding, sleeping, pooping, learning and disciplining.  If by some miracle there wasn’t a book on the subject we needed, we just looked to our family, friends and neighbors to provide examples and instructions. This was all fine and dandy until the first child diverted from the text-book description. Who knew recipes could go rogue?

If we expect our children to always grow smoothly and steadily and happily, then …we’re going to worry a lot more than if we are comfortable with the fact that human growth is full of slides backward as well as leaps forward and is sure to include times of withdrawal, opposition, and anger, just as it encompasses tears as well as laughter.  — Mr. Rogers

Vapid Betty Crocker

Sometimes as a meticulous recipe follower, I’d forget to taste the food at the end of production.  I was so sure the recipe was foolproof I assumed the food would be delicious or as good as the last time I made it.  This was a mistake.  You need to periodically taste and tweak your creations.

About 10 years and 3 children into my marriage, I was one depressed tuna casserole.  I needed some zing, pizzazz, brightness of flavor.  I was making sloppy-joes like a robot.  They were consistently tasty, but I was bland.  My heart was so heavy.  So there I was with a house full of people counting on me to be Betty Crocker and I couldn’t even be me, because I didn’t know what I was made of.

What Am I? Mashed Potatoes?

What if I was just a follower or tasteless mashed potatoes? I was unsure how and if I wanted to look within myself.  I did know I couldn’t bear to make one more uninspired hotdish. I could not let myself become stale at sous chef status. I was simmering away to nothing in a very un-Martha Stewart way (unless Martha snaps at her kids, feels mediocre and cries in the shower).

So I timidly stepped outside my own kitchen and experienced the full flavor of someone else’s sloppy-joes.  I smelled the aroma of coq au vin and noted its essence. I gathered enough spicy ingredients (fitness training,guitar lessons, writing) to ensure my own depth of flavor. I made renegade chef friends, people who have been burned and learned or have always made up their own concoctions or both.  They gave me the freedom to wreck a few meals.  Dared me to fail or completely jack-up a recipe.

Winging It

Turns out I am capable of winging it, even if I prefer not to. I have imagination and what’s more, I can teach others to make their own gnocchi.  I’ll even write it down for them but it’s better if they just give it a whirl themselves.  It doesn’t matter if the cake doesn’t rise or the soup is salty.  Trial and error is the risk-taking/transformative part, the part where life and your heart rise above the container. Where internal goes external with a dash of creativity.

As for our kids, we still confer with friends and family regarding their upbringing because it’s fun and they often reassure us that there is no foolproof child-manual We try to let the kids develop their own flavors.  I know they need help and guidelines but I also know they need to taste what life has to offer, beyond the laminated recipe card.  I want them to know there are recipes out there, but it’s perfectly wild and delicious to sample a lot before choosing a menu.  They need permission to experiment and mess up.  They need encouragement to be who they are without a recipe. They need to know what they are made of.

Are you following a recipe or using what’s in the fridge?  Is it time for some new recipes?  How do you make life flavorful?