It’s just a cookie recipe, handwritten in my mother’s lefty slant on a piece of typewriter paper. Tri folded, like the thousands of business letters she tucked into envelopes and posted for the law firm where she worked. It’s decorated with multiple coffee rings from her never empty coffee cup and a grease stain that probably came from butter splattered by the mixer.
It begins with a simple list of ingredients most cookies are made of – sugar, flour, butter, eggs. But my mother’s recipe is different from your mother’s, and your mother’s and yours. Reading her old fashioned script, it is an incantation to resurrect the dead, a talisman that spins me back into memories of Christmases past. Memories that I imagine will be my corner of heaven where I’ll eventually rest.
“one cup chopped pecans…”
They litter the courtyard of my grandparents’ house, and Grandpa’s grizzled hands scoop up what seem like hundreds, dropping them into a paper sack from the Piggly Wiggly. My four year old hands drop in a few. Grannie oversees, clean and pretty in her flowered cotton apron and rhinestone Christmas tree earrings. From the open window someone on the radio sings “I’ll be home for Christmas”, and on cue, Daddy pulls into the driveway from the lumber yard. He scoops me up and tucks me into the Buick with the piggy sack of pecans, and takes us home.
The three of us - my brother, sister and I - sit on the braided rug in the den with a bowl and the pecans. On the tv set Linus recites the story of the virgin birth and tells us what Christmas is all about. The shells peel off the nuts easily and the bowl fills up too fast – already it’s time for bed. Charlie Brown and the Gang serenade us with Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and I hope Santa brings me a baby doll.
“… cream one cup of butter”
When us three dwindles down to just me and my parents, we move away from New Orleans, away from Grannie and Grandpa, away from their pecan trees and the lumber yard. Grannie’s Sunbeam mixer, bequeathed to my mother, is unpacked and parked on the table in our tiny dark kitchen. A mountain of margarine is nearby, taking too long to soften since it's cold inside. Grandpa’s Underwood typewriter awaits with my term paper pinched between its bars, but it will have to wait a little longer. These store bought pecans have to be cracked and shelled so my mother can make cookies for my father to pass out to business associates. The nutmeat is locked tight inside hard shells, as hard to tease out as acceptance from the good ol’ boys and their high school daughters who close ranks against us newcomers. On the tv David Bowie and Bing Crosby sing The Little Drummer Boy, and I hope for an A in 10th grade Lit and for a friend.
“Spread half of flour mixture in 18 x 9 inch pan, cover with strawberry jam.”
We don’t have strawberry jam, but we do have preserves – jars and jars of figs and strawberries and peaches and pears that my grandmother put up during the summer. The prize that goes into the cookies is the one she called “End of the Day” - all the cooked fruits that didn’t fit into their respective jars, my mother’s mother mixed together and sealed into one batch.
Peaches and figs and strawberries together taste so much better for all their differences than when they’re apart, segregated in their own batches. But I was the new girl; all I wanted was to belong to the pure peach or strawberry groups of girls. Those girls left over at the end of the day – not so much. I was blind with adolescent aspirations - I couldn’t see Herbie and Rudolph shuck off others’ opinions to be happy with a glowing nose and healthy teeth, and I was lonely, trying to stay away from the Island of Misfit Toys.
“Sprinkle with sugar and the rest of the chopped pecans…”
That first Christmas he brought me a batch of cookies he’d made himself and a print he’d lugged home from a summer in Paris. I sent him away, shared the cookies with my girlfriends on the hall and shoved the print to the back of my closet, with my loafers and keds. He sent cards and called when I went home over the break. I threw them away and wished him a Merry Christmas and pitched in money from my part time job to pay for the long distance. One freezing Saturday night in January he baked lasagna for me and my roommate. The next weekend my roommate took a turn cooking dinner in his tiny apartment. I don’t remember eating. After that my roommate was busy, which was okay, because we were too. The print from Paris was repaired and framed and now presides over the mantle, where our kids' stockings hang, and my old roommate's kids beam out at us in their family photo Christmas card.
“Then spread the rest of the dough over that and bake…”
My own mixer is a plastic imitation of Grannie’s – an industrial workhorse my sister- in -law owns now. It sits on my kitchen counter, keeping company with the butter that softens quickly. I’ve bought the ingredients from the grocery store known for organically grown, fair trade groceries, and I took my time trying to select a jam that might come close to the taste of my grandmother’s preserves. I tie a chef’s apron on over my jeans, select the Christmas playlist on my Ipod, tear open the cellophane bag of pecans and get to work. Vanilla splashes off the beaters onto my mother’s recipe, and I leave it, hoping to leave my own mark - a memory of me for my children and my children’s children.
Copyright2011©Pamela V. Mason, all rights reserved
What are your own memories that the scent of vanilla or the taste of nutmeg or anise bring to mind? I'd like to hear them.
And if you wish to share a recipe, go right ahead and do that too!