first of the month: cookies, and the stories that come with them

For today’s First of the Month, in honor of cookies, family, and all the complexity of  December, I wanted talk holiday recipes. I originally wrote this for a wonderful and now sadly extinct site called GiltTaste, and as the piece is homeless, I brought it back to the blog to live here, along with my grandmother’s rugelach, the official holiday cookie of my kitchen. So for today’s conversation, I’d love to hear your favorite holiday recipes and the stories that might come along with them.

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A baker never has to die, not really.

Last week, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me she had recently unearthed her copy of my grandmother’s recipe for rugelach. She took my hands and pulled me closer as she described it in detail: the numbered steps, the loopy script of my grandmother’s note in the corner, the stains on the page. There are probably a few hundred copies of it out there, each with its own hand-written note. It’s a special recipe that gets that sort of circulation. But when my grandmother was alive? I refused to find out how good it really was.

In the mid 1970’s, my grandparents Shirley and Irv bought a wreck of a house in the hills of western Massachusetts to open a whole-grain vegetarian bed and breakfast. Although, like other suburban New Jersey parents, they raised their children on steak and potatoes, those children went into the world seeking spirituality through food. Eventually, my aunt, the oldest and most reliable of the three, convinced their parents of the moral superiority of a health-food, vegetarian diet, so Shirley and Irv moved where they could start a garden and spread the gospel.

It was within the brick walls of the inn’s kitchen that I learned how to sift flour and peel apples, and my grandparents put me to work serving breakfast as soon as I was tall enough to reach the table. Guests raved about my grandmother’s applesauce-sweetened coffee cakes and whole-wheat zucchini breads. Pilgrims of the natural foods movement returned to the inn every year, and they always pinched my cheeks and told me how lucky I was to be the helper of such a baker.

I smiled and nodded. But I hated her whole grain, naturally sweetened baked goods, and I wouldn’t touch them. The “treats” that emerged from her oven, I thought, were anything but: health food innovations of grainy flours and fruit sweeteners that smelled like the basement food co-op where my grandmother bought millet and organic raisins. Everyone else loved her sweets, and I couldn’t figure out why. I remember walking into parties with my grandmother and it was as if a plate of the cookies had arrived on their own. “The rugelach are here!” people would cheer, and Shirley would hold the platter as they disappeared, one by one, while on their way to the potluck table. Despite all the crazed fans of those nut-filled pastries around me, I made it through my childhood without trying a single one.

I yearned, instead, for “real” sugar, for food eaten for pleasure, not morality or righteousness. My grandfather committed to the natural foods lifestyle with a clear sense of superiority over those who didn’t, but my grandmother seemed to find so much joy in the moments where she broke the rules. I was always happy to participate, and together we would eat lobster on my birthday, hot dogs on the streets of New York, ice cream on hot summer days. For my grandfather, I think food was simply a means of making a statement, whereas for Shirley, meals could hold a possibility of thrill and nearly indecent enjoyment. As I grew older, and more easily annoyed, I didn’t try to hide my impatience with their relationship to food and to each other. It seemed to me, as I came closer to my teens, that the decision to limit their diet and lifestyle came primarily from my grandfather. I resented the control he exerted over the table, and I lost patience with her willingness to let it happen.

Shirley was more of a parent to me than a grandparent, and so she took the brunt of the eye-rolling and judgment that daughters inflict on their mothers. I imagine that she put up with my rudeness because she saw me come alive when I worked in the kitchen with her. If she was baking, I couldn’t stay away. And although I grumbled about the food she put on her table, I loved the table itself, a massive slab of chestnut extracted from the walls of the 200-year-old building, and I loved all that happened around it. Shirley taught me how to set that table with everything in its right place. She loved, above all, to feed people, and that joyful tingling in the hands when placing a meal on the table. We would set the table together the night before, each wearing one of her worn aprons with big pockets perfect for holding silverware as we distributed settings on blue placemats. That chestnut table lives in my own house now, and with every meal, I feel that tingling in my hands.

I was 14 when Shirley’s car drifted across the road into an oncoming truck, and our last conversation had been full of my teenage rudeness and exasperation. She and my grandfather had stopped by, and I sat on the couch without saying hello, barely raising my eyes from my book. She asked me what I was reading, and I mumbled some answer, being clear that I had no interest in talking with her.

We found bags of rugelach in her freezer, and her cookies fed the guests at her own funeral. It was comforting and jarring at once, and I imagined her hands shaping each cookie into a crescent, the dough caked around her wedding band. For years, my grief was rolled in with guilt, regret for the last moments of our relationship, stuck in that night that would always be the last time I saw her.

Over a decade after she died, when I was a mother and a baker in my own kitchen, I held Shirley’s rugelach recipe in my hands for the very first time. I found it in the shuffle of stuff that ensued after my grandfather died too; it was tucked into a natural foods dessert book held together with a rubber band. The recipe, for “ruggala,” as she spelled it, was shoved into the tofu cream pies section, folded in quarters and yellowed around the edges.  I unfolded the paper, and the scent of Jergen’s face cream and nutmeg filled my head as if Shirley had stepped up to the counter beside me.

I read the list of ingredients—white flour, sugar, butter, egg yolks, sour cream—and let out a laugh. Where was the whole grain? And the brown rice syrup? Was it possible that for all of those years I had avoided her most famous pastry out of pure prejudice? Of course, no matter what was in the recipe, I would have made it anyway.  Because now, so many years later, after having this time to miss her and dream of how she would have taken my children into chest, her huge breasts surrounding them as she smothered with love, I couldn’t resist the chance to have her with me in the kitchen. And so, reading carefully so that I wouldn’t put my own spin on it, I mixed the dough. I chilled it, rolled and sprinkled and baked, and then I ate my very first ruggala in all its sweetness.

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27 Responses to first of the month: cookies, and the stories that come with them

  1. Oh, my, you always write about so much more than food! Your life stories mixed in with the recipes are what make it all come to life. I doubt I’ll make these cookies (I’m diabetic now,so my cookie baking with be limited or I’ll wind up eating them myself) but I could easily smell and taste these in my imagination, just from your storytelling. I’m certain they are wonderful!

  2. Anna says:

    Wonderful story. Grandmothers hold up the world. And aren’t those of us lucky enough to have had such great ones so fortunate?

  3. Joan Sussman says:

    Hey Alana
    I gave my husband a copy of “HOMEMADE PANTRY” for Hannukah
    & he dove right in to make mozzarella SUCCESS but room for improvement he thinks. We thought it perfect. It adorned pizza he made from scratch with the the last of my tomatoes that ripened wrapped in newspaper & of course my fabulous GARLIC add to that a KALE salad from the only green thing left in the garden.
    Sunday, Bill made ricotta & more mozzarella then 2 pans of vegetable lasagna p. 202 for he & Max to eat during the week when they are away from home & hearth.
    You are an inspiration
    We have gallons of milk in the frig from MOON IN THE POND to be turned into Mozzarella, Ricotta, evaporated milk & ice cream
    You & Joey have to come for a meal one day soon.

  4. Heather says:

    A very touching, relatable post. Beautiful. I can easily swap out the characters and the rugelach and its suddenly my story. Thanks. Happy December! Write a lot this month will you? :)

  5. Julie says:

    My 2 year old just asked me if I needed another tissue. My response, “yes please.” He brought me 2. I needed both.
    This story is so touching. Thank you for sharing. It will be a reminder for me to be patient with my little ones…as patient, and loving as our grandmothers were with us.

  6. Prajna Hallstrom says:

    Oh, dear Alana. What a story and told with so much love and exquisite detail. I can picture your grandmother now in the telling. Thank you. I wonder if I could make them somehow gluten free? All love to you and the family.

  7. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Thanks so much, Alana, for such a true, inspirational story. And, guess what, I have everything to make the “rugella” right now!

  8. Louise says:

    Definitely sniffling a little as I read this … my Christmas sugar cookie recipe comes from my grandmother. This time of year, all my aunts and uncles and cousins all start posting pictures of our cookies from Grandma’s recipe. It’s one way we hold on to who she was before the Alzheimer’s stole her away, one way we affirm her identity and her love for family and for good food.

    My sister uses Grandma’s recipe for the cookies, and her mother-in-law’s recipe for frosting, and I love that, that her kids are going to grow up with a holiday cookie tradition handed down from both sides.

  9. Amy says:

    Oh gosh I just love you (and hi, nice to meet you, I’m Amy by the way). Every time I come here your writing and photos inspire me in so many ways. The story about your grandmother is so touching to me because I have been thinking about that exact thing a lot recently. How even though my daughter might roll her eyes or even tell me she hates something I say/do, that _____ (homemade meal, song I just sung, story I just told, etc, etc) is still in there somewhere simmering. Your grandma lives on through you. Everything she did stayed with you (despite resistance) and now she must look down from heaven so proud. Thank you for sharing your stories Alana!

  10. michelle says:

    As always, lovely! My Shortbread recipes (yep, 3 different kinds) come from my mother. I didn’t have the joy of grandparents really as my parents were definitely not young when I came along. But my mother is and has always been my inspiration, not just in the kitchen. She is adventurous, mindful, creative and joyful. I make her Shortbread to connect with her across any distance.

  11. As a native Western Ma resident, I can say your grandmother and grandfather were mavericks and way ahead of their time. I assume they lived in the Berkshires, which is now populated with organic restaurants and bakeries.
    What a joyous story and my favorite pastry is rugelach
    and I can’t wait to make this authentic recipe.

  12. Jean says:

    As a resident of Western Ma, Your grandparents were way ahead of their time, I assume they lived in the berkshires, now dotted with dozens of organic restaurants and bakeries. But in the 70′s,
    Hostess cupcakes and twinkles were the mainstay of desserts. What mavericks they were!
    My favorite pastry is rugelach, I can’t wait to taste this authentic delight.
    A fabulous and delightful recounting of a special memory.

  13. More than anything, I love your honesty in this story. I feel similarly about my great-grandmother in some ways–she was the family baker (really the neighborhood baker, everything was shared, and she was even featured in Cleveland’s newspaper for her baking), and I loved her treats, especially these special Polish cookies she used to make, and her sweet bread.

    I didn’t get to spend much time with her when I was growing up though, and didn’t have much interest in cooking or baking at the time anyways. Now, 12 years after she passed away, I really regret the time I missed getting to know her, but she was such a touchstone in our family it’s a rare get-together where she’s not mentioned and I love those stories.

    I wrote about her, my great-grandfather, and the little grocery store they owned last year. The best part was the comments from my family and their stories about her. My mom and I tried to make her bread again for Thanksgiving this year, and it was like she was in the kitchen with us.

    Similarly, my Italian grandmother on my dad’s side always used to send us a box of holiday cookies with lots of different things, including anise biscotti. I never got the appeal of them then, I left them for my dad to eat, but they’re become one of my favorites in the past few years, one of the few that I keep a stash of in the freezer after I give away all the rest of my holiday cookies (and really, by the time I’m done, I don’t want to look at another cookie for a year).

    Finally, just a shout out for rugelach (however it’s spelled). My mom and a friend of hers (and eventually me and my sisters) have been doing an annual cookie-baking day for probably 20+ years and those were made every single year, no matter what other recipes we changed. And yes, they always, always look a mess, but it’s part of why I never trust the “pretty” rugelach in shops :-)

  14. Candy says:

    I never knew my grandparents, and my mom didn’t do much baking, so nearly all of my “cherished” recipes are printed from the internet (thank you, Heidi Swanson!), or clipped from the newspaper, but my family and I still look forward to them. It’s never too late to start a tradition : )

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