Once my disbelief wore off, I started jumping up and down. She shot me a look that told me to check my enthusiasm and put on an apron. (How do old women communicate so much with just one sideways glance?) At the counter, she let me watch as she mixed the flour and eggs and water to make the money. Then it was my turn. She turned the money out onto the floury counter, and told me to knead it. I had barely made a turn of the money before she was behind me, pinching my arm. “Feel that? That’s what you’re doing to the money! How do you think it feels, being pinched like that?”
I looked at her like she was insane. How does the money feel? But a few more corrective arm pinches and I was massaging that money with the same care and attention you’d use to powder a baby’s bottom. Soon, I announced I was done and the money was ready to be rolled out.
“How do you know it’s done?” Grandma asked.
It was a good question. How did I know it was done? I don’t know. It just was—it was done. Grandma looked at me with an expression at once amused and relieved.“You are ready now, Nicole,” she said.
That one day in the kitchen changed my life. In class, we learned to cook by finding a recipe and following its instructions exactly. We were rewarded for this good behavior by getting a meal and a good grade. In my grandma’s world, we were getting into relationship with the food. Feeling it. Getting to know it. Learning how it wanted to be cooked. I wasn’t even allowed to put on the apron until I was in relationship with my grandma—until I knew what cigarettes she liked to smoke and how she wanted her toilet bowl cleaned. Now I was getting into relationship with the money, discovering how it wanted to be kneaded.
My grandma was teaching me the most important lesson of cooking, but also of living: anything you really get into relationship with will reveal its secrets to you. All you have to do is stand in the kitchen with an open mind and heart, recognizing the honor of cooking food for your family. The recipe will come.This is a lesson I have never forgotten. It was the lesson of learning the difference between cooking as a science and cooking as an art. In science, we know that you make a cake by mixing together sugar and flour and eggs. You start from a position of knowledge—from a well-tested recipe—and you follow its rules until you have a cake. But for Grandma, the process started with a question: how does this particular cake want to be put together? These approaches come from two entirely different worlds. The first is the world of science—the science of cooking, but also of living. You take these rules, you apply them, and assuming you do it all right, the result is pretty much guaranteed. The second is where you begin to move into the art of living. You don’t know where you’re going and the results aren’t guaranteed. You can give every single thing you have and not achieve the outcome you were hoping for. But what you do achieve is the experience of intimate relationship. You open yourself, and the answers come through you. You find that you know things you never knew before. You discover that a masterpiece doesn’t actually require you to master anything at all. It simply requires you to feel, to listen, and to trust yourself. That’s art.