Father Stephen’s Miracle
By Beth M. Wood
How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon? What is half of two thirds of a cup? Numbers intimidate me. I was a right-brain kid in a left-brain world. In school, I would get stomachaches just before math class. I’d avoid numbers and anything requiring arithmetic skills. Cooking was one of those things. Open up a recipe book and bam…fractions! Worse yet, doubling or splitting a recipe – it hurt my cerebral cortex. Exact answers baffled me. I enjoyed meandering through a thought and coming to various possible solutions.
I was also a born rule-breaker, not to be tough, but because I always wanted to know why. Why is this rule in place? What if we change it? Ignore it? I was a rebel in the kitchen, too. I had watched adults cook, even took a cooking class once. We carefully measured out ingredients, reading from a big, baffling book about what to stir. It annoyed me that they even told us what size bowl to use and how to mix the ingredients. Do I fold? Beat? Whisk? Ridiculous! It was like chemistry class to me. A place I never belonged, with its dazzling eye chart full of numbers and letters.
As a young adult, I still didn’t like to cook. The local pizza delivery guys knew my apartment number by heart. Once I got engaged, though, I tried to give cooking a concerted effort. A friend of mine had a magnet on her fridge that proclaimed, “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.” Yeah, right, I thought every time I saw it. Nothing reckless – or loveable – about cooking! Though, I did try to look adorably messy while cooking – just like in the movies: white apron spotted with cute little stains, an adorable smudge of flour on my check, hair in a bun, little tendrils curling around my face – unrealistic, certainly. But if I couldn’t cook well, at least I could look good trying.
Until one day, shortly after I’d moved in with my new husband. We’d received a cookbook as a housewarming gift. St. Ambrose Parish on the Hill was a church cookbook from a place in St. Louis known for its authentic, Italian dishes. Inside the cookbook was a quick inscription, “Bon Appetite! (1993) Love, Dad & Mary.”
I flipped to a random page and found something I hadn’t seen before…an entire recipe with not one single number. Not a fraction, not even a percentage. This was my kind of dish!
The recipe had been sent in by one of the Parish priests. At the top of the page was a note from Father Stephen that read like a warning: “This is a play it by ear recipe!” And following that was a list of ingredients. That’s it… a list. No numbers, no measurements. Just: Mushrooms, breadcrumbs, bacon, parmesan cheese, butter and dry vermouth.
“De-stem mushrooms and reserve stems,” Father Stephen had written. “Cook bacon, crumble, remove all but a little grease. Add a bunch of butter, cook chopped up mushroom stems and vermouth (as much as you like). Add bread crumbs and chopped up bacon. Heat over low till warm; add some parmesan cheese and stuff the mushrooms. Put a little butter in the bottom of the dish and bake at 350 till tender (about 20 min).” And then, at the end of this crazy, simple recipe, an apology from the cook: “Sorry I’m not so exact, but I don’t measure a single thing!”
I’d tried cooking before, mostly with less-than-stellar results. And even though I had no idea what I was doing, I bought the ingredients and made Father Stephen’s dish for family over the Christmas holiday. I was a nervous wreck before everyone arrived. My stovetop was splattered with grease. Parmesan cheese crumbles littered the floor and stuck to the bottom of my bare feet. Tiny chops of mushroom hid like gardening dirt under my fingernails. But as the dish baked, my entire kitchen smelled like I knew what I was doing. I was thrilled. And the first bite? Ridiculously good! As I grinned like a Cheshire cat, licking my fingers clean, I caught a glimpse of myself in the dining room mirror. There I was, white apron dotted with bits of sauce, cheeks flushed, hair piled in a clip, little tendrils, damp with sweat, curling around my face, and a smile that came from all the way inside – my stomach and my heart. This woman in the mirror wasn’t wearing a manufactured look. She was just…a happy cook.
I had finally learned to approach cooking – like love – with reckless abandon. And I still do. I’ve been given other cookbooks over the years. And with each move, through each decade, some stay, like the staple Joy of Cooking, and others go. But twenty years later, this book – St. Ambrose Parish on the Hill – remains. This dog-eared, page stained book with its fantastic memories and not-so-frequent numbers is my go-to. I’m sure they’ve put out newer editions since my 1993 version came out. But this one, with Father Stephen’s incredible stuffed mushrooms, is near and dear to my heart. For it taught me that I could, in fact, cook. And enjoy doing it.
About this writer
- Beth M. Wood is an award-winning marketer, freelance writer and mom of three. Her social media addiction pays the bills and steady copywriting gigs feed her shopping habit. She blogs about marketing and social media at bethmwoodblog.com, digresses about life and parenting at bethmwood.blogspot.com and tweets @a1972bmw.
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