Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Well: Baking Cookies to Reconnect

The Well asks, what are your food memories?

I have two that stand out, and I suspect they are a lot like everyone else’s: simple items from childhood.

Why is that? Why would we all remember a slice of apple pie from thirty-five years ago, and not some elaborate meal that celebrated a significant milestone or some concoction that you whipped up that impressed everyone? A unique meal discovered along a journey to a far-away land will not stick with you like something your mom or grandma made on a regular basis.

I never really cooked until I was in my thirties, and I never paid much attention to anyone else’s cooking until then, either. As a child, I went out and played, then the next thing I knew, there was food on the table. If it came from a take-out box or off a cast iron skillet or out of a microwave or from a wood burning stove... I had no idea which.

When I left college and went out into the world, there were two ways of getting food: ordering it from someone behind a counter or opening the wrapper of a microwavable burrito.

But despite my lack of interest in the cooking process, I can recreate my great grandmother’s apple pie and visualize the entire assembly process, step by step. Apples are peeled and sliced on this side of the kitchen, the pie crust put together on the other side, with the finished pies over here on the table waiting for the oven. I’m sitting on the red stool, the kind with the steps that fold up and in, and every couple of minutes my great grandma would cut a bit of apple skin with just a little bit too much apple stuck to it, and she’d hand that piece to one of us. She was in her eighties, but her hands looked like she was a hundred and eighty, and if you ever needed a hand model for a close-up of a wicked witch, hers would do. But you only get hands like that one way: from peeling truckloads of apples and baking thousands of pies and feeding dozens of kids and scores of grandkids for nearly every one of your 98 years. And to this day, her apple pie is our gold standard. Didn’t matter whether the apples were too tart or mealy or if the oven couldn’t hold a constant temperature — the pie came out exactly the same each and every time.

My mom made a certain cookie every Christmas and only at Christmas. It was part sugar cookie and part shortbread, and the dough was pushed through a star-shaped attachment of a cookie gun into a little strip, so the resulting cookie looked like a millipede. Two cookies were then stacked with a bit of chocolate icing as the mortar. A simple but effective little thing, and I could eat them a dozen at a time. And I thought I was so clever. My adolescent brain couldn’t recognize a sheet’s worth of cookies once they had been set on the table to cool, and to my mind, there must have been thousand of them. Surely a couple here or there would not be missed, and if I took a handful from each sheet, my mom would never notice, would she? Somehow she always did, and somehow she deduced that it was the kid who was too casually wandering back and forth through the kitchen, pretending to be looking for a pen or a ruler or the phone book or a magic marker, who had helped himself.

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