I don’t have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Don’t worry about my children – they have no shortage. Both grandmothers have signature recipes. To be fair, my mom’s is on the back of the Tollhouse bag. My mother-in-law’s is a closely guarded affair that I have only had the pleasure of witnessing as a trial, but of which I have not yet entrusted the written version.
When my husband and I first started dating, we discussed our origin cookies. Their very different qualities led to sometimes well-mannered and sometimes heated comparisons. This culinary mix of our lives has led to questions about what constitutes a “real” barbecue (he’s a Texan, I’m from North Carolina). Years together have dulled our sharpest edges. Becoming parents made us appreciate any food presented to us prepared by someone else. As our kids got older, I’ve enjoyed watching them enjoy both grandmothers’ cookies. This is undoubtedly a function of how delicious they are, but is also, I suspect, connected to the fact that both grandmothers invite the kids to help make them.
During the pandemic, our access to our families and their deliveries of deserts was drastically reduced and the cake-shaped divide in my culinary repertoire became more apparent. My daughter pointed out to me that I should either a) learn a recipe from one of the grandmothers, or b) come up with my own recipe. I set everyone’s expectations very low and began my search for a recipe that I could call my own. I didn’t want to repeat what the mothers were already doing; I suspected I couldn’t (and I didn’t want to sieve anything). Reader, this is a little embarrassing to admit, but where I ended up was a pancake mix. It turns out you can start with a box, add a few things, and voila, cookies. Good.
What I love about our pancake/biscuit recipe is that it invites improvisation. Each batch was an invitation to play. Pecans, white chocolate chips + milk chocolate chips? Cadbury Mini Eggs, pecans + dark chocolate chunks? We throw everything in the closet and wait anxiously to see how it ends. There are debriefing sessions as we take those first bites, and regardless of the commentary, every cookie is always eaten.
Yes, this is a metaphor. It’s one that stems from questions that deepen the worry between my eyes as my kids get older: What kind of faith do I pass on to them? Will it be the faith I’ve been given? What did their father grow up with? What about everything we’ve deconstructed in these years? Do we give them that?
My husband and I spent our dating years arguing about God with the same passion as we argued about food. In our twenty years together, we have taken spiritual journeys that prioritized definitions and historically accurate, culturally nuanced interpretations of scripture. Intoxicating things. We sought out churches that preached the theologies of welcome and service. Justice things. We drew love from teachings that had caused shame. Heart stuff. The a answer to all my questions in all those years has been the same, but I have not always been willing to admit it (to the glory of my husband he has.): Who is God? Is this true? Did that happen? Is that how God works? I don’t know.
Years of study, some of it in graduate-level spaces, and the most honest thing I can tell my kids is: don’t know† What kind of a recipe for faith is that?
I didn’t bake much for years because I assumed baking required attention to detail which I am not known for. Same with theology. I wouldn’t land on it because I couldn’t keep it in my head. When I started using my bread machine and sometimes missed details and still baked delicious breads, I found that I could work my way through baking with the same haphazard passion that is my spiritual life. I have always been interested in questions of faith and I enjoy reading everyone’s answers. I like to think about them, put my words around them and then jumble it all up in my head, half remembering what I heard, but with all my heart how it led me to act. don’t know is not the end of a conversation – it is the honest invitation to the next.
In the mud of parenting, this seems like you’re having two ongoing and seemingly contradictory conversations all the time. I try to be honest with our kids about what I don’t know about God or the Bible (about what none of us really know) and I try to be clear when my faith drives my choices. This is similar to my refusal to say that we Christians have a lock on the truth. Instead, I talk about what our foundational stories suggest and recognize what is beautiful, comforting, and good in those stories. And yes, I call them stories. It’s like walking through the farmer’s market and leaning in to their ears to say we can take care of the earth and our neighbors even if it costs us more, and the choice to do so is motivated by lessons I learned in the Bible. learned about God. To be don’t know but let’s be good people.
I toy with the idea that theology was never the recipe, but the baking. And maybe more than that, it’s the food. I’d thought that as a parent I had to perfect and hand over pages of clear instructions that would guide my children’s spiritual lives, and my inability to settle for anything felt like a failure. I am learning that it is enough to invite my children to tinker with me, to help me rewrite what it means to live faithfully and to love in the details of our lives right now. We are starving creatures and that tells me we will spend our entire lives rummaging in real and metaphorical kitchens. I start to settle in and enjoy the mess I can make with them, and every now and then I give them a bite of chocolate – a story of great love I got when others invited me to bake.
Lauren Graeber is a writer, teacher of writing workshops, and co-director of the Center for Prayer and Spirituality at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point, North Carolina. She navigates faith, parenting and questions that delightfully refuse to be answered on IG @certainly sometimes†