Rare Ingredients

Image mosaic of 3 kings

Traditional 3 Kings, with a view of date palms, which produce dates, which are sometimes considered a rare ingredient.

I grated orange zest the other day.

Grating orange zest made me notice that baking has something in common with magic.

Orange zest is not a particularly rare ingredient, at least not in the 21st century United States. Thank you, Florida and California! I noticed this as I pondered what to do with the extra ¾ teaspoon or so of orange zest that had come from the second orange, which I had grated because the zest from one orange was not quite enough for the recipe for the orange-date bars I was baking. I had, happily, bought two oranges in anticipation of this very possibility, not knowing off the top of my head how many oranges it takes to produce 1 ½ teaspoons of orange zest.

It’s not a rare ingredient, so if I had decided to toss out the extra zest probably no one would have judged me. I put it in a little plastic bag and saved it in the freezer, anyway. There have been times and places when oranges were rare and precious. One of my favorite Christmas stories is Andrei Codrescu’s memoir of the arrival of oranges at Christmas in Communist Romania – a time and place in which a recipe that called for a teaspoon of grated orange zest might as well have called for a pinch of gold.

This reminded me of Harry Potter in potions class and of Professor Slughorn, the potions master, extracting Acromantula venom from the late Aragog, because “Acromantula venom is uncommonly rare.” (Not hard to see why it would be, certainly.) Magic potions, like baked goods, are made with recipes and ingredients, some of which are rare and precious. Recipes that call for rare ingredients can’t be made often; they take on the rare and precious quality of their ingredients; they become “special.”

The rarity of the ingredients might be intrinsic – the ambrosial fruit plant only grows on one 3-square-meters habitat in the Himalayas, and only fruits once every 10 years, that kind of thing. Or perhaps the ingredient isn’t so much intrinsically rare as it is such loads of work to produce that it might as well be – so not all bread is puff pastry, for instance, and not all whiskey is old – or the production process is so involved or tricky that it isn’t something you want to do every week of the year – so not all pasta is ravioli. Traditional Christmas baking involves a lot of these normally rare, or labor intensive, ingredients: fruit from far-off sunny places, like orange peel and dates; spices from the mystic east like ginger and cloves and cinnamon; nuts that have to be hammered and then picked out of their shells and then grated or chopped, so that sacks of them yield tiny piles of nut meats; dough that has to be rolled out and cut out and baked just 6 to a pan and cooled and decorated by hand to make little gingery homunculi. We can see why these recipes attach themselves to special – infrequent – occasions like Christmas.

Because both magic potions and baked goods are the product of recipes and ingredients, theoretically anyone who can assemble the ingredients and follow the recipe can produce the results. Of course some practitioners manage better results than others; some bakers’ and some wizards’ efforts always seem to turn out a bit better than others’, some regularly a bit worse. The Cake Boss’s cakes always look great; Seamus always blows himself up. But presumably this is a matter of technique, which presumably is teachable. Even the talented Harry Potter benefits from the specific, analytical instructions in the potions textbook annotated by the Half-Blood Prince; novice bakers benefit from the tutelage of parents and grandparents, or failing that, then video demonstrations on YouTube. Practice and perseverance probably count for more in the long run than some “native ability.” Like baking, magic is a sort of technology. David Aune has identified the “management of supernatural powers in such a way that results are virtually guaranteed”1 as one of the key criteria of “magic.” The whole point of activities like baking, and magic, is gaining reliable, predictable control over some objective elements of the environment, for the purpose of producing predetermined results. When you have the recipe, the ingredients (especially the rare and precious ones), and the training to put them together in the proper way, “it works;” and when it works, people ooh and aah and say “it’s magical!”

People sometimes say this about Christmas, or anyway about certain Christmas-related experiences. What this seems to mean agrees with the technological interpretation of baking, and magic: that some set of ingredients of “Christmas,” like decorations, lighting, food and drink, sights and sounds, people and place, weather (snow, paradigmatically) are combined according to some formula for experience to yield a response of wonder, delight, with maybe a tinge of the supernatural or a sense of the numinous. There is a lot of shared culture in the recipe for Christmas magic: tiny twinkling lights on trees in the dark are a staple ingredient, as are the singing voices of children or the tintinnabulation of bells. The magical effect seems to depend heavily upon recreating something of the experience of childhood, so that adults feel as if time has stopped, or even flowed temporarily backwards. We gather for the annual “light up our town” event for the sake of the split second we experience the wondrous twinkling Christmas trees come to life with the flip of a miraculous switch, even though our adult selves know full well the effect had to be produced by a crew of workmen with cherry-pickers and financed by a hefty line item in the municipal budget.

This kind of magic, if it is magic, is real – but its ingredients are not as concrete and precise as fruits and spices; they include distillations of experiences, themselves produced according to complex “recipes” and subject to variations in outcome due to training. They are vulnerable to vicissitudes of time and place and practice and perseverance. The ingredients, recipes and skills that are commonplace today may be hard to come by tomorrow. Worlds change, bringing gains, and loss.

The vulnerability to vicissitudes stands out most acutely as the real revelation of this year’s baking project. That revelation had to do with the Chinese Chews.

Since I was baking anyway, it suddenly hit me: “I could make Chinese Chews.” And as soon as I realized I could, it seemed obvious that I must. Nothing, but nothing, means Christmas like Chinese Chews.2

To know that, however, you probably need to know this: Chinese Chews are not really all that chewy. They are little spherical cookies made with sugar, eggs, dates, and nuts, rolled into balls and rolled in sugar; when they bake they get hard on the outside; but the insides do stay kind of chewy, hence the name. The Chinese Chews recipe is on an oil and flour-stained 3×5 card, in my grandmother’s handwriting, since they have been made in our family at Christmas probably since my grandmother lived in Arkansas, even before my mother was born. They were first and always on the Christmas baking list. Skills are involved in making Chinese Chews, skills I myself learned from my grandmother and mother as a child, which include never cooking them as long as the recipe says because they always get too brown on the bottom no matter what you do. The necessary art is to achieve the delicate balance between still raw and already scorched, which requires perfectly precise timing and the cultivation of an almost mystic oneness with the oven. When the Chinese Chews succeeded, as they astonishingly did year after year, one or two cookie sheets of them anyway, we loved them. We made them because we loved them, of course, and we loved and fretted over making them because we loved them, and we loved and fretted over making them together because that was our world, in which we loved each other and fretted over each other and made these little morsels that we could give to people we loved who would love them. Nothing embodies “belovedness” like Chinese Chews.

Spelling it out that way misrepresents it, of course. I didn’t so much think all this while I walked through the Jay C and bought dates and calculated how many eggs we still had in the fridge, as much as I recollected and relished and felt it.

So when I got home, with the dates, I took the box of recipes I’d salvaged from Mom and Dad’s house down from the cabinet over the microwave and flipped to the “cookies” tab. No Chinese Chews recipe. So I flipped to the “Christmas xtras” tab. Not there either. So I got the other recipes box down from the cabinet. Not there. And took all the recipes out of the box and searched through all the tabs. I began to think I remembered Mom saying something about this the last Christmas she was alive, began to remember her saying “I cannot find the Chinese Chews recipe …” which I could have made up but maybe she had called me to see whether … I had by some miracle … so I got the box of recipes my younger self had put together decades ago down from the cabinet and there, sure enough, on the first card under the “cakes and cookies” tab, was a copy of the Chinese Chews recipe, written out neatly in my own college student’s handwriting when I was still “the kind of person who bakes for Christmas” and had needed my own copy of the liturgy.

“The liturgy,” I thought, since baking, like the “work of the people” that is the leit-ourgia, involves the social repetition of patterned experience and the elaboration of shared stories that produces shared meaning. Sitting there with tears of stupid relief streaming down my face, I thought “this is exactly what ‘handing something down’ means, this is exactly what ‘tradition’ means” – passing on the recipe that is indispensable for producing the result, but passing it on together with an understanding of its relationship to specific meaning-producing social arrangements and the meanings they produce. When it happens, it looks and feels like magic. But if it were magic, it would always happen. In reality, like Chinese Chews, the process doesn’t always “work.”

Anyone can follow the recipe, combine the sugar and flour, the eggs and dates, and produce a foodstuff, anyone at all. The superfluous meaning would never be missed, its absence would never be noticed, and whether it would have any measurable effect on any dimension of the experience of making or consuming the foodstuff – dare I say I doubt it? But I cannot go so far as to believe that the ability to grasp, to experience, how those cookies communicate, embody “belovedness” doesn’t make a difference when making them, and when sharing them.

We made the meaning of Chinese Chews, we worked that meaning into them. It was the work of many years, in which the act of making the cookies was only a small part of the process, and in which the meaning made in the process was far from a “virtually guaranteed” result. That makes it unlike magic, unlike technology, more like something else … something more vulnerable, more variable, more prone to reinterpretation, revision, rejection, abandonment – though also, potentially, recollection, reappropriation, renewal. More like tradition, maybe, or culture, or religion.

Meaning is not a rare ingredient – people make it all the time, every day, everywhere. But “that particular meaning” is a different story. A rare ingredient? Apparently. Precious? Possibly … but only when made so, by practice, perseverance, and love.


1 David Aune, “Magic in Early Christianity,” Aufstieg ung Niedergang der römischen Welt, 11.23.2, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1980, 1507-57, quoted in Clinton E. Arnold, 1992, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 19.

2 The Chinese Chews recipe:
1 c sugar
2 tsp baking powder
2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 c nut meats
1 c chopped dates
2 eggs, well beaten
Sift sugar, baking powder, flour, and salt together. Add nuts and dates. Add well-beaten eggs, slowly. Form into smallish balls, roll in sugar, chill. Cook in 375° (F) oven till light brown.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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