A Fresh, Hot Batch of History

Snickerdoodles.jpg
Oh, it’s a changeable day…clouds scud across an early moon as it edges out the pale setting sun. Dry leaves skitter across the street, and children, in puffy quilted jackets that belie their terrifying masks or princess-y tiaras, trick or treat. One burly little football player is made even bulkier by the fact that his snowsuit is UNDER his uniform. His mama, wrapped up in a thick woven blanket, grins as she escorts the boy from door to door.

Mark is doing candy duty on this cold, October-fleeing night, braving the insistent wind and foot-fending the little dog who desperately wants to bark the costumed visitors away, away, away from her door. And I—I am in the kitchen, baking cookies.

*******************

I opened the cookie jar after lunch to find just two chocolate chip cookies.

“Cookie?” asked Mark, my hard-working husband, wistfully, and I handed them over. I washed out the jar, setting it upside down on the cast-iron stove spiders to dry. And then Mark went back to work and James and I drove to the library in Westerville.

The knowledge of that empty cookie jar went with me, a subtle but insistent prod. We have a history, cookies and me, and somewhere along the line, I signed the pledge,– the one that says an empty cookie jar will always, and soon, be filled.

************

My mother, a stay-at-home mom most of the time, kept her cookie jar full. We seldom had things like soda pop, potato chips, or ice cream novelties in the house, but we always had something baked. My friends all knew where the cookie jar lived; they all loved my mother’s baking.

I bemoaned the fact that her chocolate chip cookies doubled the batter and halved the chips.

“You don’t NEED that many chips,” she’d reiterate, good Depression kid that she was, frugal nerves twitching. But I DID–I did need my chocolate chip cookies to be lumpy, crunchy clusters of morselly delight.

My friends didn’t care. They poured tall glasses from the opened gallon of skim milk in the refrigerator, sat at my kitchen table, and munched.

“These are GOOD,” they mumbled, spitting crumbs, and they looked at me like I was crazy to complain.

I sighed. I was happier when the cookies were ginger snaps, or peanut butter drops pressed flat and crunchy with the sugared tines of a fork. I liked the oatmeal cookie recipe I was pretty sure crossed the ocean with Mom’s family from Scotland, and when Mom added Snickerdoodles to the everyday cookie pantheon, I fell in love with those too. She made chocolate sugar jumbles and frosted them with white frosting. She made molasses cream cookies and tinted the icing pink or green.

Dad liked weird cookies–like Italian fig bars, which Mom made only at Christmas. The recipe, though, made a thousand or so cookies, and they would haunt the kitchen in their tupperware for a month. Dad contended they improved with age, and he would take a bundle in his lunch, every day, until they disappeared.

He also liked minced meat cookies, which looked a lot like chocolate chip cookies, but one quick read of the ingredients on the minced meat can swayed me firmly onto the side of ‘No, thank you.’

“Try one,” Dad would say; “they’re really tasty!”

I would make an awful face and back away.

“Aw,” he’d mutter, “you kids don’t know what’s good.”

I can live with my ignorance, thank you, I thought but did not say.

Christmas and Easter brought cut-out cookies, made with a short bread recipe that was family-bound, too. Those were glazed and dusted with colored sugar. Just getting the cookie cutters out, pulling them from the top cabinet where they resided in a battered old tin, was  excitement.

Cookies were part of the everyday fabric, and part of the special times fabric, too.

****************

Family photos:

My cousin Barbara shows me a picture of our grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother’s mother, in her wedding gown. She has a Gibson girl hairdo–glossy, thick hair piled high above her open, pretty face. Her elegant dress is beaded, buttoned, high-necked, long sleeved. She smiles tentatively. She is beautiful, this woman that we never knew.

Barbara tells me she has spoken with someone–an aging family member, or an old, old friend of the family, I don’t remember who–who told her that “Minnie” was ever smiling, welcoming, hospitable. She always had cookies in the jar for kids and for company, this person said.

My brother Sean sends a photo in the mail one day. Wait until you see it, he messages. When the manila envelope arrives, I carefully lift open the flap and pull out  a glossy black and white picture of my mother, tiny, scowling deeply, being held in her brother Jim’s arms. Next to them is Annie, Barbara’s mother, in a cloche hat, her arms full of flowers. Annie and Jim, young teenagers, look tired and desperate. In front of them are mounds and mounds of flowers.

They are standing at their mother’s freshly dug grave.

***************

There were always baked goods when we visited Aunt Annie, a special trip that only happened once a year, if that. There were always cookies in my mother’s kitchen. For two grown girls, bereft too early of a beloved mother, maybe that was a way of maintaining connection, of keeping the faith.

A cookie jar that’s always full means someone really cares.

****************

Cookies: background to my personal history. But cookies are an essential part of our larger culture, too, I think. We use cookie language. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we say, philosophically, when things go wrong. Or, “She’s a smart cookie!” we say admiringly, when she figures out a clever, savvy way to navigate a tricky passage.

We sing, along with a fuzzy monster, “C is for Cookie! That’s good enough for me!” We sing about animal crackers in our soup.

On Facebook, I see a meme: “If a redhead loses her temper,” it reads, “do we say Ginger snaps?”

When Bill Clinton ran against the original President Bush, there were hard issues on the table, but chocolate chip cookies caught the attention of United States voters. Whose recipe was better–Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s? The amount of press and attention that got was a measure of how deeply we value our cookies.

So where, I wonder now, did cookies come from?

Cookies have been around a LONG time, I find on whatscookingamerica. net–gosh, since at least the seventh century AD. Scholars posit that the first cookies were ‘test cakes’ in a time of uncertain oven temps. Conscientious bakers would whip up a batch of cake dough; to make sure the oven was hot enough, they would bake up a little portion to see how well or how quickly it cooked. I imagine a jolly, roly-poly royal baker indulging in a hot little cake fresh from a flaming oven, bouncing the toasty treat  on his tender fingers. “Oh, yeah!” he’s thinking. “That oven’s hot enough. And damn, I make a good cake batter…”

Persia, I learn, was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar, and, as a result, cookie-style cakes. By the 1400’s, Europe had embraced the use of sugar and little cake-baking. A Parisian shopper in that era could purchase sweet, filled wafers on the busy city streets. Renaissance cookbooks offered an abundance of cookie recipes, What’s Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.com) tells me, and, in 1596, a cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel contained directions for square shortbread cookies enriched with egg yolks.

Settlers brought their cookie traditions to United States ovens,–cookies called things like tea cakes, jumbles, plunkets, or cry babies. And the railroad made exotic ingredients available–coconut, pineapple, and oranges, for example–and broadened the boundaries of Cookiedom.

Mr. Kellogg invented the corn flake in the early 1900’s, and shortly after that, his company proposed the concept of adding cereal to cookies. (Tiger Cookies, with crushed up frosted corn flakes and swirls of melted chocolate, are a family favorite here. The random addition of the forlorn leftovers at the bottom of the cereal box to any old cookie recipe is highly frowned upon, however.)

Refrigerators hit the big time in the 1930’s, and icebox cookie recipes did, too.

And maybe the best known morsel of cookie history is the story of the Tollhouse cookie–how Ruth Wakefield, at the Tollhouse restaurant, ran out of nuts one day. She decided to chop up a chocolate bar and add that to her “Butter Drop-Do” cookie dough (www.culinarylore.com). Patrons went crazy for the cookie; by 1939, Nestle was marketing Tollhouse chocolate chips to accommodate the craze.

I go searching for the story behind Snickerdoodles, the deliberately NON-chocolate cookie that fills our cookie jars this indulgent Hallowe’en season; their story is nowhere near as crisply outlined as the Tollhouse cookie’s tale. Grit.com tells me the  recipe might have come to the States from Germany or Holland, or it might have come from a creative, whimsical New England cook’s kitchen. The name may be an Americanization of ‘Schneckennudelin,” which means, ‘snail dumpling.’ (Eeeuw.) Or–the cookies might have been named for an early 1900’s hero called Snickerdoodle. (But then, he might have been named for the cookie.)

An American Food Historian (americanfoodhistorian.blogspot.com) reports that the earliest mention of Snickerdoodles in print might be from page 8 of the June 14, 1898, Boston Globe. So of course, she notes, the cookies had to exist before then.

Like most of our history, it seems, Snickerdoodles were created in the quiet, with deliberation, maybe, but not much fanfare, and then their popularity spread, until the little cookie became ubiquitous. Most people, these days, if you whisper ‘Snickerdoodle’ in their ears, will immediately think, Cinnamon. Chewy. Yummy.

**************

It’s the morning of November 2 as I finish typing this ramble; I sit at my dining room table in the just-dawning day. My son and I have a breakfast plan this morning: we will dine at the classic Denny’s out on Airport Road. Last night Jim read me a long litany of hot cake possibilities, including pecan sticky bun and red velvet variations. A purist, I will probably order something more traditional than those glorious concoctions.

But it will be an hour or two before James shakes off the night’s sleep and we pile into the Hyundai to search out sustenance. I sip my fragrant cup of fake coffee and realize I am little bit peckish. I grab two Snickerdoodles from the big plaid cookie jar. We like our cookies crisp, not soft; we like the edges nicely browned. These two, stolen from the top of the pile, are just perfect.

I place the cookies on my napkin, and yield to the importunings of the anxious little dog, who wants her Second Walkies now. We slip off into the dawning day, gray and wet, and she sniffs and considers for fifteen minutes or so. My silly slide-on shoes soak up the morning rain.

I am not concerned. My pay off waits–that steaming coffee, those two crunchable, spicy cookies. Let the winds blow, and the rains come. My shoes will dry. We’ll light a fire in the fireplace, snuggle up with fuzzy blankets.

In an uncertain world, symbols of security are precious. Today, we feel fortified and fortunate. We have our reserves. There are cookies in the cookie jar. We’ll weather the storm all right.

Snow Day

Snow day essentials

At the very end of our meeting, just as 5:00 tolled its happy “Go home!” peal, Shelley got a text from a student.

“Hey!” said Shelley, “There’s a rumor the College is closed tomorrow.”

We packed up to go, and we all snorted variations of “Yeah, right.” And then we saw Kevin, the custodian, right outside the conference room door, and he confirmed the rumor.

“None of us are to report tomorrow,” he said.

Thursday: A snow day.

The can’t-shut-up-, blah-blah-blah,-no-filter, voice in my head shouted, “Oh NO!  Not a snow day!  There’s stuff to be done tomorrow!”

I thought about collecting apples and bananas for our breakfast sale on Friday, thought about following up on RSVP’s for next week’s event, thought about paperwork to do and calls to make, classes that would not be taught and meetings that wouldn’t meet…But then, slowly and thoughtfully, that other voice, the wise and patient one, spoke up.

It said, “Yo! Blah Blah! Shut UP!  It’s a SNOW day!”

Oh, man.  A snow day.

****

I grew up along the southern shores of Lake Erie, where on clear days, I could see the roof peaks and smokestacks of Hamilton, Ontario, poking up far over the horizon on The Canada Side. The Lake, when clean enough–there was a period back there in the late sixties, early seventies, when it was not advisable,–was our summer playground.

In the winter, lake effect snows crowned us ‘The Snow Belt.’

When snow threatened, the plows came out, the trucks dredged salt up and down the thoroughfares, and, for the most part, life went on.  Cars might move a little more cautiously (except for the occasional eejit; I hear an echo of my father’s voice from behind the steering wheel on a blustery day, as some adventurer passed him going 45 in a 30 mile zone.  “What a yi-yi,” he would say in disgust, but if the foolhardy speeder wound up in a ditch, Dad would be the first to stop and offer help.) The world might sound a little muffled, with a dense layer of snow to absorb harsh noise.  There might even be sculpted drifts four feet high on either side of the roadway.

As long as the snow was steady and gradual, the road crews controlled things, and schools and businesses met as usual.  But, at least once a winter, we could count on perfect timing: an after-midnight, rapid snowstorm, when six inches to a foot of snow fell quickly and thickly.  The road crews couldn’t keep up, and the schools would have to close.

There was no greater joy than waking up at 7:00 to find out I could crawl back into my still warm blankets and sleep until 10 AM.  Sometimes it would even mean a dreaded test would be postponed or an incomplete assignment had 24 more hours to put itself together.  And sometimes there was nothing outstanding, no unfinished work hanging ominously, like a bulging water balloon, over my recalcitrant head. Sometimes, it was just an unexpected gift–a day with no obligations.

*****

I feel like I have met and mastered snow days. Over twelve years in the Snow Belt school system, I must have accumulated, given the Blizzard, the Ice Storm, and other truly major weather events, a backlog of over three months of ‘inclement weather’ days. I even remember a couple of snow days at my college, to which I commuted, but which was mostly a residential (hence, seldom closed) campus.

I have had a lot of snow day practice.  I have come to realize that, while there has to be an individual spin and interpretation of each event by every lucky participant, there are four essential components of a really good snow day.

Here they are:

  • something freshly baked,
  • a wonderful cozy book to read,
  • an intrepid adventure, and
  • a hearty, stick to the ribs, supper.

Today, I am doing my part to stick with the program.

*****

Gone are the days, alas, when I can deftly sleep in till 10 AM, or 11 AM, or noon.  I’m up this morning at 7:30–which is 90 more minutes of Z’s than usual–to find Mark scuffing around in his long, snuggly bathrobe and woolly-lined slippers.  When he hears me get up, he calls the dog downstairs and lets her out–she will not budge until my feet hit the carpet.

I perform the requisite ablutions and come down. I look at him expectantly.

“Are you closed, too?” I ask.

“No,” he says, sadly.  “Just moving a little slow…”

He schleps down to the basement to iron a shirt, and I pour my first mug of steaming coffee, which that blessed man was nice enough to brew for me. As Mark trudges upstairs to dress, I suck down coffee, write my morning pages, and read the paper.  I do my daily newspaper word puzzles.  Mark comes back downstairs, sharply creased and lawyerly.

He reluctantly gathers things together, remotely starts his Impala, and finally accepts that he really has to go.  It’s not all bad–Mark and his nice colleagues will welcome the Chinese New Year at the Panda Buffet at lunch–but still, he has to brave the blustery weather and a thirty minute drive.  I hope there are no eejits or yi-yi’s on Route 16 today.

The house grows quiet. I tackle the freshly baked portion of the day first.

I’ve decided to try the Joy of Cooking recipe for chocolate chip cookies–a day to be daring.  (My favorite recipe is still from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, the one with the red-checked cover. Those are wonderfully, reliably, good cookies.  But–you never know what else could be out there, another recipe waiting to become the new favorite.  I keep searching.) I vow not to mess with the instructions; I will follow the recipe exactly as is to get an idea, a baseline.  If I like it, I can innovate in later baking adventures.

Cookies
I dig out the ingredients, get them all ready in their measuring cups and bowls–pretending I am like those cooks on television who walk into their immaculate kitchens and–Gosh! Look at all these tidy little containers of ingredients waiting for me!

I tug out my stack of cookie sheets (my son Jim did a wonderful job of Internet shopping this Christmas past; from somewhere he leveraged a stack of no stick, heavy duty cookie sheets.  Now I can put almost a whole double recipe of cookies out on sheets at once.  Today, I only have to re-use two trays to bake up the whole batch.)

The Joy recipe is from pre-WWII days; it says to grease the sheets, so–non-stick or no–I do.

The only tiny variation I make is to throw in the end of a bag of mini chocolate chips with the full bag of semi-sweet morsels; I love the added chocolatey texture those mini-guys give a cookie.  And I like the way these cookies come out, flat but not pancakey, crispy with a little chew. I will get the Zanghi boys to weigh in, but I’m thinking this might just be a new default recipe.

I think this, because I carefully, scientifically, and thoughtfully (in between pulling sheets from the oven, putting new sheets in, and sliding hot cookies onto the cooling tray) examine and analyze with the proper tools : a steaming mug o’ joe, a cozy murder mystery, and a saucer of fresh-from-the oven cookies.

I’m reading the latest in Sally Goldenbaum’s “Seaside Knitters Mystery” series, Murder in Merino.  The books have a group of lovely friends at their core, and I am able to watch their lives unfold. So I’ve seen Izzy go from unhappy big-city lawyer to small New England town yarn-shop owner, from single woman to newlywed,  and to, in this latest volume, new mom. There’s also the perky and aged town matriarch, Birdie, who has wealth and wisdom and a long trail of out-lived husbands; there’s tough little Cass, who, with her brother, runs a lobster-trapping enterprise; and there’s Nell.  Nell’s like the earth mama of the group. She and her husband Ben are wonderful together; it’s a true love match; and they host delicious Friday night suppers,–weather permitting, on their deck.

I can count on the Friday night dinners and the Thursday night knit-togethers in Goldenbaum’s books, and I can count on recipes and patterns at the end of each.  (This one has directions for a throw with interesting cable panels; I might just buy great hunks of soft black yarn and knit one for the family room.)  And I can count on the sad discovery of a dead body; this little New England town attracts outcasts and conflicts and murders. And of course, the knitters always feel compelled to figure out whodunnit.

Completely outlandish of course–who would stay in a town, no matter how beautiful, that was such a death magnet?  But these books are not supposed to mirror reality; the characters are comfortable old fictional friends; and it’s nice to think about sitting on a deck by the ocean, enjoying cool breezes after the heat of the day.  Temps here are plunging to minus eleven; the wind chill, says my weather person, will make it feel like minus thirty.

Oh, for a warm ocean breeze.

*****

I clean up as I go these days–my messy baking roots just a dim and distant memory. By the time the last tray of cookies have been spatula-ed onto the round tray where I spread them to cool, all I have left to wash is…the last tray.

I check my email and find that my community engagement meeting is still on.  Ah: my adventure awaits!  I head upstairs and put on my public mask and get out of my cozy, elastic-waisted, snowy day gear.  James gets up and rummages in the refrigerator, pulling out the perfect snow day breakfast for boyos: cold pizza.

I start the car, crank up the fan, and let it warm.  While it does, I take the crazy little dog out for a walk.  The only hat I can find is Mark’s good Buffalo Bills toque; that pops off my clean hair uselessly, so I wrap my head in my long, scrap-knitted scarf, and Greta and I head down the drive.

One would think animals have that sense of--Ooooh, it’s really cold; I’ll just take care of business and trot right back inside.  But no. Greta wants to sniff and explore, to meander and wonder.  She finds deep deer tracks splashing through the snow.  She must put her slender snout in each one and snort me a report.

My cheeks start to feel petrified, so, since she has admirably performed her noble functions, I tug the dog back to a warm house and a chunk o’ wiener  treat.  I worry about those unprotected little paws in sub-zero snow.

The car is warm; the art museum where we meet just far enough away to justify driving.  Most of the team is there; we glow with intrepidation–Here we are, while the rest of the world shivers in their warm houses: we, –yes, we,–have braved the elements! Laine, the vibrant museum director, provides hot drinks and a little nosh, and we efficiently put our budget and our schedule together.  Huh. We who have mastered the arctic temps can easily handle a little bit of event planning.

I swing by the grocery store on the way home, and buy all the necessary apples and bananas for tomorrow’s event.  Panic averted; we are set to offer breakfast treats.

The car is warm; Jim, at home, needs his outing, his adventure, too, so we head back out to the public library.  Committed to reading the books piled high on my shelves, I don’t even let myself LOOK at the new books.  I flip through periodicals while Jim scours the film shelves, roves through stacks of graphic novels.  With his reading and viewing supplies replenished, we head home.

*****

It is now time to put together the hearty meal.  I’m thinking soup; we’ve had pasta sauce and chili already this week; and I have broth made from roasted turkey bones, and I have, too, all the other necessaries to make a big pot of Italian wedding soup.  I cook up three links of Italian sausage–specially bought sausage from western New York. It has a nice hot hit of spice, and, sliced into coins, the sausage  flavors the soup a little more piquantly than just the little meatballs do.

The soup simmers; I take Murder in Merino to my reading chair and pull the afghan over me; as I drift off—plooommph!—the little dog jumps into my lap.  We take that finest thing–a cozy, mid-winter afternoon nap,– together.

Mark comes home full of the bitterly cold day’s exploits.  We slather butter onto fresh slices of French bread from Giacomo’s, our favorite deli-bakery; we make turkey, bacon, and cheddar paninis–Mark’s and mine have caramelized onions, too–and we eat the sandwiches with steaming bowls of soup.  Darkness falls; the house is warm and cozy.

Markie eating

Tomorrow will come roaring at me, but the purpose of a snow day, I have decided, is to give us renewed energy for that cold, hard reality.  Snow days remind me of the essential role that ‘Home’ plays in my life.  And they tell me that surprises are possible, that, in the midst of a difficult winter, and all along Life’s sometimes trouble-y trudges, there are splendid and unexpected possibilities in store.

I end the day with a steaming soak in a brimming tub, and then I take my murder mystery to bed.  I almost finish it before I drift off, renewed and ready for what the morrow, and the winter, have in store. And thankful.

Ahhhhhhhh. A snow day.