December 12, 2017
In late November, people in our school start asking me about “THE COOKIES”. Funny, I never once consider that they would become “THE COOKIES”.
Eight years ago, I dropped out of the sky (well Northern Illinois) into the Northeast having never having been here. My husband and I left our (nearly grown) sons and family in the Midwest and moved to near Boston MA. That first year, we had our house on the market full of our things in northern Illinois and we rented a furnished 1750’s farmhouse, a far cry from our former home on the prairie and our familiar possessions.
Being a literacy specialist, that first year (and many since) were about making relationships as I could, learning the ways of a new district and building, and searching for a way to call this new normal, home. Everyone was polite. I kept busy, but I longed for the rituals of my former life.
When we arrived at Thanksgiving that first year and there were three of us instead of 12 or more, I began to have a terrible homesickness that I couldn’t seem to shake. The kitchen of our rented farmhouse was the best room in the house. It was large, warm and inviting with a sunny window over the sink, the same oven I had had at home, and a baking station with a professional mixer.
My husband’s sister and I had always gotten together when the kids were small and baked cookies for one or two Saturdays before the holidays. We created cookie trays for each of us, Bob’s mother and dad, and extras for family friends and co-workers. We had our favorites, both new and from our own mothers: peanut butter cookies with kisses, sugar cookie stars, and pecan snowballs. We baked and ate and filled our kitchens with love and warmth. Along with many family holiday rituals, they fit like an old sweater.
Back to our new reality, Bob and I were just two. There was no way for us to eat through batches of cookies. I’m not sure when it came to me, but I decided to bake a batch of cookies every day during that first December in Massachusetts. I had never made 25 different types of cookies, though full disclosure, I had make at least one batch of cookies a week for thirty years. At first, I didn’t really say anything at work, I just started bringing the cookies in the morning and leaving them in the teachers’ lunchroom. Familiar cookies at first. One’s that my mom, Bob’s mom, my old friends, or Mary and I had baked over the years. Then it quite literary snowballed.
People started discussing their favorite cookies. When it came out that it was me baking these cookies, people would comment on their favorites, ask if I could make something they had heard of or enjoyed in their families, and leave recipes in my mailbox, on my desk, and in my inbox. They looked forward to the morning, when the cookies would arrive and either ate one right away or squirreled it away for later in the day. In the magic of cookies, it made us more than co-workers, more like co-conspirators. The cookies were transformative for me. Something besides work to talk about and so many people to talk to.
We trudged through that December with Peanut Butter Blossoms and Cherry White Chocolate Rice Krispie Treats. Eggnog Snickerdoodles and Hot Chocolate Cookies. Spritz and Italian Christmas Cookies. I learned a lot. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot more about baking. I know about cookie sizing, best ingredients, what kinds of butter, parchment, flour. I research cookies and experimented on so many. I don’t know I wasn’t afraid they wouldn’t like them. Perhaps I thought everyone loves a little cookie.
As we approached the winter holiday, our psychologist at that time asked me, “What are you going to do after the holiday?” I wasn’t sure what she meant. Christmas was over and hopefully so would be my need to bake cookies. “What are you going to make after the holiday?” I hadn’t given it one solitary thought. I thought my public baking had an end point. But no… Marilyn told me about a book she had read, All Cakes Considered. Melissa Gray (NPR) had written a book about perfecting her mom’s cake baking prowess by baking a cake every Monday and bringing it into NPR. Marilyn thought, as did others, that this was a terrific idea for me.
I’m not sure why I thought it would be a terrific idea. While I had made a few cakes during my life, I wasn’t an expert by any stretch. A home cook with little training except food science courses in college, I impulsively bought the book and began to search the internet for recipes of cakes for the newly christened Cake Monday. So Monday cakes came to be. A story for another day.
When the next December rolled around, Bob and I were fairly settled in our Massachusetts ‘permanent’ home with one son ‘temporarily’ ensconced in our lower level. Our older son was due to come for Christmas and our familiar holiday decoration with Christmas village, copious ornaments, and favorite knickknacks in place. While I still missed the warmth of family, having spent Thanksgiving in Chicago, we were ready to face the holidays much brighter that the year before.
Surprising to me, people began to ask about the “December Cookies”. The hallways had snippets of conversation about cookies. People casually reminded me about their favorites from the year before. There was an expectation of cookies. How could I say no to that?
From that day forward for the last eight years, cookies show up in the teachers’ lounge every morning during the month of December. The week before December 1st, I make a calendar or list of the cookies. Many, many of them now are favorites of someone. Christy loves eggnog snickerdoodles. Melissa has to have cherry white chocolate krispies treats and hot chocolate cookies. A relative newcomer said, “Do you remember my favorite?” “It’s red velvet.”
So each evening after dinner or sometime early morning before work, the delicious aroma of vanilla, butter, and sugar fills our home. My husband has resigned himself to imperfect cookies stuffed in his lunch or the occasional snuck cookie from the cooling rack. My son rattles the Christmas cookie jar on the counter and gives me a half glare that there aren’t any cookies in our jar. Eight years. 136 batches of cookies. Close to 5,000 cookies later, I’m making a list, checking who is out what day so I don’t make her favorite when she is away. You can find my cookie recipe collection on my Pinterest page, readingteachsu under Christmas Cookies. Someday, maybe, this adventure will be a book. Tomorrow’s cookies are hot chocolate, but you better stop by early, they don’t last long.
Thank you to the Slice of Life Community and Two Writing Teachers for all of your support and inspiration and this week, a special thank you to Tammy Mulligan for encouraging me to tell this story.