After my grandmother died, my mom and my Aunt Nina took up her holiday cookie-baking gauntlet. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Grandmére was a prodigious baker of cookies; around the winter holidays she spent hundreds of hours filling tins with sweets to pass along to her family, friends and neighbors.
I’ll go out on a limb of memory—likely exaggerated by the fact that I was a child with a sweet tooth—and say that she made at least a dozen different types of cookies, decorated and plain, plus divinity, peanut brittle, fudge and chocolate-dipped peanut butter balls called buckeyes. Over the years, she collected hundreds of cookie and candy recipes from friends, magazines and flour packages. Her recipes were kind of a hodgepodge, to be honest, and finding a favorite recipe after she died was practically an archaeological process.
Her recipes were named things like “Dolly Hoover’s Coconut Bars” after her dear friend of many years. Dolly also made and decorated cast ceramics in a studio in back of her house: Christmas trees that lit up, and platters that portrayed jolly Santa faces. Another source of recipes was Rose Lane, who lived across the street from my grandmother for probably 60 years. Rose’s husband, Porter, was a tiny man who reminded me vaguely of a wiry Harry Truman. Rose was thick-waisted, wore faded print housedresses and sat on her screened-in front porch visiting with whoever stopped by. The ingredient lists of all those recipes predictably included butter or lard, refined sugar and white flour, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and walnuts. Dolly’s artistic leanings and use of coconut made her a bit of a renegade.
My grandmother’s recipe collection has given us a family history lesson. It also became the outline for a new tradition, because although my mom and aunt are not carbon copies of their mother, they’ve devised a way to keep up the cookie-baking tradition. Once I realized how much fun they were having, I made certain to be there for the festivities.
I use the term “tradition” loosely. Some families do the same things the same way every year. My mother says that our family tradition is that we do things differently every year.
In other words, tradition isn’t a Tevye-inspired “Fiddler on the Roof” song and dance at our house. It’s more a conversation with the past than a script, which suits me just fine.
It’s important to me, though, to revisit the recipes from Grandmother’s collection and read the cookie-baking notes from the past few years. I instituted note-keeping because I could never remember which recipes were duds; I kept making recipes that sounded great on paper, but had some fatal quantitative or procedural flaw.
Those notes have also become a record of where to find our favorite recipes, what music we listened to, and, most importantly, what beverages were consumed. This year, mom made frozen “bucket margaritas,” recipe courtesy of my cousin Doug.
Important note: expect the men in the family to act a bit testy about having to make their own lunches on cookie-baking day. Fortunately, they’re easily mollified with bloody Marys until they find out there are frozen margaritas in the freezer. Reminiscent of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family,” cocktails have made their way into our family tradition. Last year, I caught mom with my camera saying, “This year is different because instead of martinis, we’re drinking gin and tonics!”
Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, I plugged my computer into speakers perched on top of the refrigerator. While we mixed dough, the three of us listened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the Be Good Tanyas, then Diana Krall, Ray Charles and the Gibson Brothers, among others. My mom says she listened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the late ’50s because her older brother was listening to him. After playing the 45 record on the front porch of my grandmother’s house as a 7-year-old, I was quite sure that Ray Charles’ rendition of “Hit the Road, Jack” was the best song I’d ever heard.
Back in my mom’s kitchen, we danced to an eclectic mix, drank our frozen margaritas and baked about 50 dozen cookies. I think we might have set a record, but of course we’ll do something different next year.