I don’t have a go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe. Do not worry for my children – they are not in want. Both of their grandmothers have signature recipes. Well, to be fair, my mother’s is the one on the back of the Tollhouse bag. My mother-in-law’s is a much-guarded affair that I have only been allowed to witness as a process, but whose written version I have yet to be trusted with.
When my husband and I were first dating we debated our cookies of origin. Their very different qualities led to sometimes well-mannered and sometimes heated comparisons. This culinary intermingling of our lives spilled over into questions of what constitutes “real” BBQ (he’s a Texan, I’m from North Carolina). Years together have blunted our sharpest edges. Becoming parents made us appreciate any food put in front of us, prepared by someone else. As our children have gotten older I’ve enjoyed watching them revel in both grandmothers’ cookies. This is, no doubt, a function of how delicious they are, but is also, I suspect, tied 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 were dramatically cut back and the cookie-shaped gap in my culinary repertoire became more apparent. My daughter pointed out that I needed to either a) learn one of the grandmothers’ recipes, or b) come up with my own. I set everyone’s expectations very low and began my search for a recipe I could call my own. I didn’t want to replicate what the mothers were already doing; I suspected I couldn’t (and I didn’t want to sift anything). Reader, this is a bit embarrassing to admit, but where I landed was a pancake mix. It turns out that you can start with a box, add a few things, and voila, cookies. Good ones.
What I love about our pancake/cookie recipe is that it invites improvisation. Each batch has been an invitation to play. Pecans, white chocolate chips + milk chocolate chips? Cadbury Mini Eggs, pecans + dark chocolate chunks? We throw in whatever is in the cabinet and expectantly wait to see how it all turns out. There are debriefing sessions as we take those first bites, and no matter the commentary, every cookie always gets eaten.
Yes, this is a metaphor. It’s one that grows out of questions that deepens the worry lines between my eyes as my children mature: What kind of faith am I passing down to them? Will it be the faith I was given? That their dad grew up with? What about all we’ve deconstructed over these years? Do we give them that?
My husband and I spent our dating years arguing about God with the same passion we debated food. In our twenty years together we have navigated spiritual journeys that prioritized definitions and historically accurate, culturally nuanced understandings of scripture. Heady stuff. We searched out churches that preached theologies of welcome and service. Justice stuff. We excavated love from teachings that had engendered shame. Heart stuff. The one answer to all of my questions across all of these years has been the same, but I haven’t always been willing to acknowledge it (To my husband’s credit, he has.): Who is God? Is this true? Did that happen that way? 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 children is I don’t know! What the hell kind of recipe for faith is that?
I didn’t bake much for years because I assumed that baking required an attention to detail that I am not known for. Same with theology. I wouldn’t land on one because I couldn’t hold it in my head well. It was when I began using my bread machine and sometimes missed details and yet churned out delicious loaves, that I discovered I could muddle my way through baking with the same haphazard passion that is my spiritual life. I’ve always been interested in questions of faith and I love to read 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 whole-heartedly loving how it moved me to act. I don’t know isn’t the end of any conversation – it’s the honest invitation into the next one.
In the muck of parenting, this looks like holding two ongoing and seemingly at-odds 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 knows) and I try to be clear when my faith is the impetus for my choices. This looks like my refusal to say that we Christians have a lock on truth. Instead I talk about what our foundational stories suggest and I acknowledge what’s beautiful and comforting and good in those stories. And yes, I call them stories. It looks like walking through the farmer’s market and leaning down to their ears to say we can care for the earth and our neighbors even when that costs us more, and the choice to do that is motivated by lessons I learned about God in the Bible. It’s I don’t know but let’s be good humans.
I’m playing with the idea that theology was never the recipe, it is the baking. And maybe more than that, it’s the eating. I had thought being a parent required me to perfect and hand over pages of clear instructions that would guide my children’s spiritual lives, and my inability to settle on anything felt like a failure. I’m learning it’s enough to invite my children to join me as I tinker, to help me rewrite what it means to live and love faithfully in the particulars of our lives at this moment. We are creatures who hunger and that tells me we will be fumbling in real and metaphorical kitchens all of our lives. I’m beginning to settle down and enjoy the messes I can make with them, and every once in a while I slip them a bite of chocolate – a story of great love that was given to me 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 @definitelysometimes.