Christmas, for me, means food, and food means new recipes. I’ve bought dozens of cookbooks, torn hundreds of pages from magazines, and exchanged favorites with friends—although lately, I’ve taken the easy way out, searching the treasure trove of online recipes. But the holidays are different and this season I was reminiscing about my mother’s Christmas treats. For the first time in years, I pulled down an old, wooden recipe box—and went on an unscheduled trip down memory lane.
My mom was an average cook, but she was a brilliant baker and confectioner and she loved Christmas. As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey disappeared into potpie and soup, out came the sugar, butter, chocolate and nuts that she transformed into divinity, peanut brittle, and two kinds of fudge. When the candy was finished, she moved on to baking: sweet roll dough shaped into wreaths, decorated with candied cherries and flattened gumdrops cut into holly leaves; pecan, mincemeat, and apple-cranberry pies with lattice tops; and dozens upon dozens of cookies. There were crisp sugar cookies, rolled thin and iced, peanut blossoms studded with Hershey’s kisses, and Snickerdoodles she flattened with the bottom of a sugar-dipped glass. She traded these with friends and shared them at church, arranged them on platters and wrapped them in waxed paper in Santa-themed tins. Only one kind was sacred, kept strictly for family in an old Charles Chips can—the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that she dropped from a spoon.
The box that I’ve stored on a high kitchen shelf for at least thirty years was a gift from Mom when I got married. It’s about four by six inches, engraved with the silhouettes of a rolling pin, an apple, and a bag of sugar. Inside are index cards, some food- and water-stained, others so old the ink has faded. Some are written in my once-neat cursive. Many more are printed, scrawled, and typed by relatives and long-forgotten friends.
Thumbing through those cards, I nearly forget what I’m looking for, because I finally understand what it means when someone says, “my life passed before my eyes.” Summarized here is my life history, in decades: Family recipes from my childhood and teen years, like the baked beans Aunt Peachie brought to every Bardo reunion and the sand tarts Great-Grandma Heilman made from a “pinch of this” and a “handful of that” in her “moderately hot” wood stove. There are recipes from the fifties and sixties, when food manufacturers like Kraft and Campbell’s gave us cream cheese and Jell-O salad (Nana’s go-to dessert for cookouts) and the Kool-Aid ice cream my mom made in the summer.
After college, when I moved out and married, my horizons expanded. I sort recipes by location—Pennsylvania, Toronto, and Atlanta—and subdivide by marriages and jobs. There are early experiments as I learned how to cook—pasta and stir-fries, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, plus a tattered booklet from the crock-pot years. In the midst of these recipes, a few stand out, because the women who shared them were important to me, friends I lost track of when I “moved on,” for one reason or another.
- Alice’s Kentucky spoon bread, the specialty of a wonderful woman lost to Alzheimer’s disease
- Dolores’s chocolate chip cream cheese brownies, a recipe I’ve made for my brother, now fifty, on his birthday, for twenty-five years
- Longie’s pina coladas and whiskey slushes—delicious in Pennsylvania and perfect for our South Carolina heat
- Linda’s apple dumplings, sure to please my dessert-addict husband
- Anne’s Margaree Valley French Toast, from her Nova Scotia bed and breakfast, in my friend Bob’s almost unreadable handwriting
I made it through the box without finding Mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. Thankfully, I found so much more—a list of old friends I will look up this year, on Facebook or elsewhere, whatever it takes. Maybe one of them will have Mom’s recipe.