Grandma, Nana, Memaw, Nonna, Babushka: however they’re known, most cultures venerate grandmothers in some way, often through memories of food and its preparation. So it was that while working through a binder of cookie recipes for my annual Christmas Cookie-Baking Binge, I decided to find out what my grandmothers and great-grandmothers baked for Christmas goodies. After all, our ancestors connect to us with food. However, I come from a rather reticent family steeped more in routine than tradition, especially when it comes to holidays. I was starting from a point of nonspecific direction, a condition entirely too familiar.
I have two of my maternal grandmother Lula McLeod’s cookbooks from 1891 – compiled by the Ladies of the Independent Society and the Ladies of the Congregational Society, both of Presque Isle, Maine – as well as one from the Houlton Country Club dated 1926. I also have my mother’s handwritten notes of “how Mama made it,” but very few of my paternal grandmother Winifred Church’s recipes (none of which are the molasses cookie recipe my brother and I crave!), and a sort of notebook labeled “Jos. Roberts” containing some of his (wife Eliza’s?) dessert recipes.
There is almost no mention of any holiday, let alone Christmas. In fact, most recipes are simply a list of ingredients; the writer assumes the reader knows what to do with it all. The one recipe titled “Christmas Cookies” reads as follows: “4 lbs. flour, 1 ½ lbs. sugar, 1 ½ lbs. butter, 5 eggs, 4 teaspoons cream of tartar, 2 teaspoons soda, ½ cup milk. Spice to taste.” Not exactly a glitter and sugar-covered gingerbread man.
[Most] recipes are simply a list of ingredients; the writer assumes the reader knows what to do with it all.
While cookie, candy, and dessert recipes were abundant, there were more inspirational sayings than Christmas fondants: “With weights and measures just and true, Oven of even heat, well-buttered tins and quiet nerves, Success will be complete.” There followed an informative list of measures including how “two teacups, level, of granulated sugar weighs one pound.”
A standard bag of sugar available today will state it weighs four pounds, so just how big is that teacup? So I tried various teacups and granulated sugar, and yes, that measure is accurate enough for baking success, although it would drive my professional-baker-friends to guzzle the Stroh meant for the pastry. There is no mention of gingerbread men in the many recipes for gingerbread (with and without stout!), nor instructions to use star-shaped cutters on the sugar cookies or how to color sugar for decoration.
Reading more in these books, I am still mystified by the number of recipes for chocolate cakes which contain no chocolate, but are covered in a sort of meringue frosting dotted sparingly with grated chocolate. I tried Eliza Roberts’ recipe for that cake, the recipe right next to the one for “kerosene emulsion.” (Had to read carefully, there. Husband survived.)
In short, what I found was nonspecific direction for every-day, experienced cooks to do what they wanted for holiday cheer once the basic recipe was combined, and I’m okay with that. I’ve successfully made their “not-quite-chocolate” chocolate cakes, spice cakes, and gingersnaps, but I skipped the kerosene emulsions!
Between the dark and the daylight, when blood sugar is beginning to lower . . . a primal voice from deep within demands chocolate, sugar, and butter. (It happens in every generation. Must be an age thing.) Pass the cookies, please!
And in conclusion:
‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through this house
Panic ensued, scaring even the mouse.
A holiday coming, what to make for dessert?
Get it baked, get it cooked, while remaining unhurt?
I examined the pantry with critical care,
And saw what I needed, sitting right there.
A light on the flour looked like new fallen snow,
and I’d turned up the volume on a new cooking show,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But my smiling husband saying: “Can I help you, dear?”
In my best stern voice, I’m lively and quick,
I called out “Stay out of my way, go away, make it quick.”
More rapid than eagles my movements all came,
I whistled, and shouted, and called out each name:
“Now Fudge, now Brownies, now Fruitcake and Toffee,
Some Cookies, some Teacakes, some Blintzes, spiked coffee!
“To the Mixer and Oven! To the Pantry for All!
Stay out of the kitchen, unless I should call!”
All kinds of spices sat safe in a rack,
“Hey, I see what I need all the way in the back!”
By now I was covered in flour from my head to my feet,
“I’ve finally found something, and it’s really sweet!”
The stump of a cork I held tight in my teeth,
And the smell of the brandy circled my head like a wreath.
I had a smile on my face as I soaked fruit for a cake
“It will be great, so make no mistake!
I’ll be chubby and plump, a jolly old elf,
If I don’t stop eating and nipping, and get a grip on myself.”
With a wink of my eye and no cork left to shred
I stopped nipping the bottle and had nothing to dread.
Not a nip or a word, I went back to my work,
I filled the gift bags, then turned with a jerk,
And laying my finger aside of my nose
And giving a nod, flew up the stairs for repose.
I sprang to my bed, to the Elf gave a whistle,
And to sleep I fell, like the down of a thistle.
But I heard my husband say, as I fell off for the night,
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
 Lula Atlant (Roberts) McLeod 1876–1958.
 Winifred Sturgis (Lee) Church 1884–1979.
 My maternal great-grandfather Joseph Ireland Roberts 1850–1919.
 Eliza Sawyer (Parsons) Roberts 1845–1912.