Three years ago a new family moved next door. The moment I saw a young child I groaned. I’d watched as the street raised a generation. Been there, done that. I was happy enough to live among adults; the neighborhood’s ethnic mix of Hispanic, North African, and Middle Eastern residents provided enough diversity for me.
But there she was, a 6-year-old child with special needs who insinuated herself into my life. I’ll call her Nina. She banged at my door and stammered at me through my mail slot, demanding attention. Despite my initial resistance, I let Nina in.
I’ve read her books she can’t decipher. I’ve sung her songs she’ll never forget. I’ve taught her how to blow her nose, peel an orange, cut a corn-flour tortilla still warm from her grandmother’s stovetop. And she’s taught me some things, too.
On Saturday mornings she stands at the door and makes a predictable request: “Let’s make a recipe.” In my kitchen we’ve ground cranberries, baked corn pudding, mixed pancake batter, measured flour from my canister. Two months ago, on a weekday afternoon, she stood at the door holding up a five-pound bag of white flour, handed out at a food pantry. “What’s this?” she asked.
I pointed to the critical word and enunciated slowly: “Flour.”
“To make bread?”
“Yes. Or muffins or pancakes.”
“Can you help us make bread?” she asked, followed by a command: “Come. Help us make bread.”
“Not bread. I don’t know how,” I replied. “And not today. Maybe pancakes on Saturday.”
On Saturday morning Nina’s plan was specific: “You come to my house. Abuela wants to learn how to make pancakes.” I knew she had eaten prepackaged pancakes bought from a store but apparently she’d never made them from scratch. My morning was free. Why not teach an immigrant family to make an American classic?
“OK,” I said, “Let’s copy the cookbook recipe onto a card and collect what we need.” Guessing correctly that I’d need to supply measuring cups and spoons and baking powder, I loaded the essential items onto a tray.
Every encounter with Grandma—Abuela—is complicated by our lack of a common language. I don’t speak Spanish. But there’s often an additional puzzlement. Our first session got off to a good start. Abuela pointed to the unfamiliar flour on the counter. Yes, she wanted panqueque. Nina retrieved milk and egg cartons from the refrigerator. Abuela watched us measure the dry ingredients into one bowl, the wet ones into another. Nina translated my commentary: “Now we make a valley in the flour and pour in the liquid.” No longer hearing any Spanish chatter, I looked up. “Where’s Abuela? Isn’t she watching?”
“She went to the shower,” Nina reported. “She’ll be back.”
Staying on course, I finished the batch, which Abuela, fresh from the bath, helped eat. Pleased with the product, I packed up my measuring equipment, left behind some baking powder, and went home. We’d used one cup of the flour. What would become of the rest?
At about 5:30 that evening Nina knocked on the door, her request now repeated: “Abuela wants to make more pancakes. She needs your help.”
Somewhat skeptical, I followed Nina into their kitchen, where Abuela waited. She’d mixed the milk and egg. Now what? she gestured. How much flour? What size spoon? I went home to collect my measures and then stood back, giving instructions for filling the valley, pouring the batter into the hot pan, waiting for the bubbles, and flipping the cakes, presumably like corn-flour tortillas. Finally I slapped high-fives. “Get the plates. Find the syrup.” As Nina scrambled to comply, I slipped out the door.
For her birthday that very week, I bought Nina a set of bright red measuring cups and spoons, which she brought out the next weekend when she again summoned me to oversee another batch of pancakes, incorporating a third cup of flour.
Another day, another knock at the door, another question through the mail slot: “We’re making pancakes. Which spoon for the baking powder? Big or little?” And again, “How much salt?”
By the end of the month, it was Abuela who knocked, midweek, while Nina was at school. She didn’t gesture a request, but handed me a warm aluminum foil packet. “Panqueque,” she said, smiling as if her gift was much bigger than a short-stack lunch.
In a Nashville airport coffee shop, I told this story to a songwriter friend adept at subtly layering lyrics. She listened and got to the quick: “Write it up. ‘Five Pounds of Flour.’ It’s not about your neighbors. It’s about you. You don’t want it. You don’t know what it is. What do you do with it when it shows up at your door?”
This article appeared in the November 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 11, page 36–37).