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By August 15, 2012 No Comments

Recipes seem to be a theme here at The Twelve of late (check out Debra Rienstra’s post, “Here’s What’s Cookin’” from last week). Since today is Julia Child’s 100th birthday, I had been planning on looking at a recipe myself today in honor of her. I have so many wonderful memories of watching Child (and her joyfully exuberant style of cooking) through the years with my mother, an accomplished cook and bon vivant herself. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that my sister and I both collect cookbooks—new ones, of course, but the old ones too.  As Debra’s posting discussed, recipes act as rich sociologies and provide deep insight into the real material conditions of people’s lives.  Entering that world, one imagines the skills (now often long vanished) and resources/ingredients (also oftentimes absent) that people had then. Or sometimes what they didn’t—I have a cookbook that was published in England in 1947, entitled Wishful Cooking, which is an entire cookbook of recipes that could only be made with pre-war ingredients, then unavailable because of post-war rationing. To read it is to understand both the privations of the post-war period in England as well as pre-war indulgences. And to be reminded again of the evocative place that food has always had in the human imagination (paging Marcel Proust). 

When I visited my sister this summer, then, we were looking at a cookbook she had recently acquired. Stuffed within the pages were loose recipes the previous owner had scribbled down and stuck there for safekeeping.  One of these really grabbed my attention, and I immediately got my phone to take a picture.  A transcription of the recipe follows, if the picture is illegible.

Johnny Cake

1 flour to 2 corn meal

½ cup sugar

1 heaping tbsp. lard

¼ salt

3 cup Klaber milk

(1/2 tsp. soda to ordinary sour milk)

(less or more soda if less or more sour milk)

Make a sloppy thick batter like this

Bake in a quick oven on grate

like biscuits

This makes enough


Johnny Cake has a long and venerable history in American cooking, dating all the way back to native peoples, so in some ways this is a quintessential recipe.  And there are so many things to love about this particular iteration: the old school measurement of giving flour to corn meal in proportion, not cups; the inclusion of lard; the description of Klaber milk (and the funny reminder of how to vary the proportion of soda to sour milk); the instruction to make a “sloppy thick batter” (what would that look like exactly?); the lack of a temperature guide beyond “a quick oven.” It tells you a great deal about the writer’s acumen in the kitchen and the basic ingredients with which she was working (including finding an economical use for sour milk).

But the reason that I took a picture of this recipe—what seized my imagination—was the serving size: “This makes enough,” it claims.  Not serves 4-6.  Not makes one 9” pan.  Nope, “enough.”  A formulation of perfect contentment. 

If we’re honest, how rare it is to think that anything in our lives is, in fact, enough.  We either want more, or we worry about not having enough—which is actually two sides of the same problem.  

I was powerfully convicted of this several years ago when I had the tremendous privilege of hearing theologian Walter Brueggemann parse this phenomenon in the lives of the ancient Israelites. As slaves in Egypt, he said, the Israelites lived in a culture that had a “fear of scarcity” which lead to the hoarding and concentration of wealth and to the oppression and enslavement of the poor.  The key insight for me was that, under this model, even people who have enough are still anxious that they do not, and therefore, they are unable to share out of their abundance.  No community is possible, then, because people remain profoundly insecure and self-protective of “their” stuff. 

So strong is this narrative, Brueggemann argues, that when the Israelites are in the desert and can’t control their own resources, they are desperate enough to consider returning to slavery.  The wonder of the manna and the quail is that it introduces the “narrative of abundance”—that God will provide.  Enough for every day.  Without hoarding or anxiety or fear. The radicalness of this narrative is one that Jesus embodied, of course.  He feeds the 5,000—with leftovers. He feeds the 4,000—with leftovers. He feeds us in the bread and the wine of his own sacrifice—with more love and grace and mercy and joy than we can ever ask or imagine left over.  This makes enough indeed.  It is the only thing that makes Christian community possible.  

Brueggemann’s “way of greed, way of gratitude” is echoed by Frederick Buechner, in his memoir The Sacred Journey, when he writes:

To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.  The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.  You can survive on your own.  You can grow strong on your own.  You can even prevail on your own.  But you cannot become human on your own.  Surely that is why, in Jesus’ sad joke, the rich man has as hard a time getting into Paradise as that camel through the needle’s eye because with his credit card in his pocket, the rich man is so effective at getting for himself everything he needs that he does not see that what he needs more than anything else in the world can be had only as a gift.  He does not see that the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from God himself, a helping hand. (46)

Let us open wide our hands to receive and to give. There is enough.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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