A couple years ago, all hell broke loose on these pages when the flour went missing from the gingerbread recipe we printed here. Trusting souls went bravely ahead flourless, bucking all their instincts and ending up rightfully dismayed when all they had to show for their time, ingredients, and effort was a pan of sticky glop. The skeptical ones dug out a cookbook and figured they had to have a at least a cup and a half since all the gingerbread recipes they found had flour in them. Bingo.

That is the trouble with recipes. We live in a scientific age with a great respect, devotion, even slavishness to the formulas that run our lives from the numbered lists of self-help programs to recipes. Cookbooks are ever popular even though the Internet must have a couple million recipes on it by now and it is true that if you can read, you can cook, though sometimes the result is the culinary equivalent of paint-by-numbers artwork. In my peregrinations as a food historian I can’t tell you how many people have told me in awed tones about this grandmother or that elderly aunt who “never measured anything” yet whose cooking was famous.

There is a lot to be said for living on an island as many of us do where all things are not constantly available. It fosters maintaining a pantry with an array of commonly used ingredients. It also challenges our imagination and creativity to figure out how to substitute for or work around missing items. My own journey as cook began at age four with making tuna fish sandwiches with “enough” mayo. When I was a little older I learned how to assemble Jell-O, and add a packet of Italian seasonings to tomato sauce to put on spaghetti. We followed recipes in Home Ec, though somehow I learned you didn’t need a recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches. When I moved away from home and lived with a family who didn’t have the packet of Italian seasonings, I learned about making spaghetti sauce from scratch. It was a life altering experience, reinforced oddly by several years of cooking in a fireplace with historic recipes that were wonderfully non-specific. I ended up with strategies for cooking that have benefited me enormously over the years of living where if I run out of some ingredient after the stores close (on Islesboro this is 2:00 on Sunday and weekdays after 6:00), I can usually keep on cooking without running to the neighbors to borrow the needful.

A strategy is particularly useful for common daily meals. For instance, suppose you have a bit of leftover ham still on the bone. Merely put it in a pot, add water, boil it until the meat comes off, remove the bone, cut the meat up in neat little bits, toss the gristle, add a big bunch of dried peas or beans and cook them until they are soft, put in some onion and celery and maybe savory or parsley, and call it soup. If you put in too many peas or beans and the result is thick enough to cut, add water or broth.

Or if you have leftover baked beans, add water or broth, some bit of ham or sausage, put in some onion and celery and maybe savory or parsley, and call it soup. Look, ma, no recipes!

Yet there are whole cookbooks full of soup recipes. There is even one with fifty chowder recipes which always struck me as forty-nine too many.

Now if I am going to produce some kind of exquisite cake I don’t fool around like I do with soup. If I am pickling, I don’t fool very much with the brine proportions. But let’s look at pancakes.

I found out a long time ago that I can make good pancakes for two to three people if I use one cup of dry ingredients, leavened with two teaspoons of baking powder, and one cup of wet ingredients, which always includes one egg. Now we can begin to fiddle around.

The Dry Stuff can include white, whole wheat, spelt or other flours with a bit of some other Dry Stuff mixed into it: rolled oats, cornmeal, buckwheat. I’ve even used a bit of packaged porridge mix like a seven-grain cereal. The Wet Stuff can include milk, buttermilk, yogurt thinned with water or milk, water, with the egg beaten into it. I start by putting the egg in the measuring cup and adding the rest of the liquid to it up to the one-cup line. Then I mix it up with a fork. I don’t usually add oil or melted butter, but you can if you want, a tablespoon or so. If I use buttermilk or yogurt, I turn one of the two teaspoons of baking powder into one of baking soda.

Then comes the fun: add a handful of raisins, or dried cranberries, a little chopped apple, or some sunflower seeds or leftover cooked rice, or some corn. I think sugar and spices are optional. I don’t use sugar but you can. If I add raisins, I like to have cinnamon. If I use corn, I add a little black pepper. If you want lighter and fluffier pancakes, separate your egg, and beat the white until it is stiff and fold it in last thing before baking them. If the batter is too stiff and the pancakes are thick, add more Wet Stuff. If it is too thin, sprinkle in a little more Dry Stuff.

See how this goes? If I made a certain cake often enough I would probably end up so familiar with the recipe that, like your non-measuring grandmother, I’d know how far up in my favorite mixing bowl the dry ingredients had to come, how many eggs I usually used, and how much of my palm the right amount of spice covered.

Now if I count correctly this little essay has in it at least a dozen “recipes” and actually a good many more. At least three for soup, and all the rest are for pancakes. (Plain, Buttermilk, Oatmeal Raisin, Cornmeal Corn, Apple and Cornmeal, Seven Grain and Cranberry, Whole Wheat and Rice, Spelt and Sunflower, Cinnamon Raisin, etc. etc.) And don’t even get me started on the possibilities with summer squash, or pumpkins, or a whole chicken, or a pile of apples.

Cooking is more fun if you don’t have to keep stopping to squint at some recipe and if you get to use what is in your kitchen. Of course, it doesn’t benefit Kraft, or Pillsbury, or General Foods, or Nabisco as much, now does it? Hmm, do you suppose it might even be more economical?

Sandy Oliver cooks and writes on Islesboro.