When I think of Christmas it’s not typically the trees or lights that first come to mind, but rather the warm squishiness of a clump of cookie dough, or a dense buttery piecrust, in my flour-covered hands. I love the feel of the rolling pin moving across the bumpy textures and the yielding malleability of a simple sugar cookie awaiting shaping. Baking is such a tactile experience, the transformation of a weighty mass of disparate flavors into a light, doughy, chewy morsel of warm perfection. Ultimately it’s the hint at alchemy that sustains my interest, the transformation of so many separates into such a satisfying whole.
Growing up with my maternal grandmother in a multi-generational home, and with the other grandparents less than five minutes away, kitchen alchemy was part of daily life. These were women who had cooked from scratch their entire lives; women who survived the Depression. They knew how to make delicacies like wild Muscadine jelly and how mix up a little flour, eggs, and water and create a feast. But during the holidays they, along with my mother, would go all out. Cookies and pies for days, y’all. And the best part was they always let me help.
… I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion.
I can clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s wonderful butter-stained recipe cards and her wrinkled hands in the dough, flour in the crevices of her silver wedding rings. Her kitchen was tiny and her movements precise. She’d give me eggs to whisk or flour to sift, and if I ever drove her crazy being so small and underfoot she never let me know about it. Providing me with an opportunity to fall in love with cooking was more important to her than a clean kitchen.
When I think of my mother baking, I recall her moving around her own small kitchen like a speed skater, the constant swish of the athletic pants she was so found of wearing in her last years, and surrounded by three different cookies in various stages of completion. She had this wonderful and weird quirk of baking at all nontraditional times of the day. Come Christmas time she was likely to be whipping up cookies into the wee morning hours, and more often than not, even as a young girl, I’d be up with her. It was way past my bedtime, of course. But she knew those magical moments of midnight alchemy were worth infinitely more than following bedtime rules for their sake alone.
When my sons were first learning to speak and their words were few and (adorably) far between, they called any muffin, cookie, or biscuit I made a “mama cracker.” I’ve always marveled at their creative and highly descriptive use of limited language, including their short stint referring to ice cubes as “water crackers.” But the phrase “Mama cracker” was especially touching. They’d watched me make these baked goods and therefore named them after me. Such a name wasn’t just creative use of limited language. It was an idea funneled through a sieve.
According to Miriam Webster, the word “alchemy” has a few definitions, including the more historic concept of medieval chemical science, which involved a “speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” But it’s also a word meaning “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” and/or “an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.” What is baking if not the process of transforming of something common (flour, eggs, milk) into something special? And, beyond that, baking has become one of my many attempts to mysteriously (or blatantly) transmute stories from one generation to the next.
I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking.
My mother and both grandmothers are gone now, and the holidays are, at best, bittersweet days reminding me of this deep loss. They weren’t perfect people, but they were the women who taught me about being a woman, and I’ve learned that baking is one way I can channel the sadness of this loss into a more peaceful memory. I see my grandmother’s hands in my own, and I’ve clearly inherited my mother’s curse of kitchen multi-tasking and late night baking. Not nearly as patient as the women who came before me, I try to remember to shrug off the mess as my sons’ attempts at stirring sends a large cloud of flour into the air and onto the floor. When they break the egg with too much force, sending the shells into the mixing bowl, I get a fork and pick them out. After all, this is how they’ll learn to love the magic of baking, which is something I really want for them as men. And such pilfering through such childhood memories may be one of the ways they’ll one day search for me when I’m gone. I’d rather not be remembered as the woman who freaked out about broken eggs.
I’m a folklorist, and we often talk about Foodways, the study of the gathering, preparation and consumption of food. In this sense, food is a window into a much larger exploration of a given region, the cultures within that region, and the unique and individual stories that contribute to the larger whole. Looking at the stories behind food is like peering into a series of window opening out not only to the past but also towards the future. When I teach my sons how to cook I’m channeling my grandmother who channeled her grandmother; I’m channeling my mother who learned from her aunts and cousins. And, in some small way, I’m laying the groundwork for the men my sons will become. So it’s not just a pie (slightly crunchy from the eggshells) my sons and I are making. It’s a mysterious transmuting of one generation to the next, a ritual transforming many common things (food, memories, parents) into something special.