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.
12 thoughts on “Kerosene and other cookies”
I’ve found plenty of my own recipes with just an ingredient list! Back in the day when I cooked and baked every day, I knew what to do. It’s been a long time since then and even though I made those recipes so often I really didn’t need the ingredient list, I don’t remember now how to make it.
Merry Christmas to you! I am having a quiet Christmas without my family this year, this really brightened my day. I have an old book that my grandmother glued other pages on top of all sorts of things, cards, newspaper articles, recipes…. I cherish it.
My grandmother’s Christmas gift each year was big soft, fluffy sugar cookies that were wonderfu! When I was older and tried to make them from her brief note, it was a challenge. The ingredients were each listed with amounts; eggs, sugar, milk, salt, baking powder, vanilla, except for one – lard, with no amount. After trial and error I figured it out, but you could not substitute other shortening, it had to be lard for them to taste right. Wish I had one right now to dip in my coffee.
The Kerosene Emulsion was used by my grandmother to remove insects from her plants, inside or outside. First the soap was dissolved in boiling water, then the kerosene was added a little at a time, stirring well with each addition. It also resulted in building bigger muscles in the arms from the amount of stirring that was needed,
For the cake have all of the ingredients at room temperature. First “cream” the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs one at a time, saving the last two egg whites for the frosting, Add the milk Next add the mixed and sifted dry ingredients about a cup at a time. This would also be the time to add any spices, which are mixed and sifted with the flour Pour the batter into loaf pans and bake. To keep the shape of a cake first cool it in the pan. Once the baked cakes are cooled down to room temperature they can be frosted. This procedure is followed for just about all cake and cookie recipes…
Today baking powder or baking soda is usually specified in the recipe rather than the dry yeast that this recipe calls for. But the yeast that used to be used contributed a specific taste to the finished product. A little can be used in addition to the baking powder or soda to get that taste back. Now that modern ovens can be temperature controlled, breads, cakes, and cookies are usually baked at 350 degrees F or 175 degrees C.
From experience I know that the spices added directly to the liquid causes the spices to clump up, and it is then impossible to get the spices to spread throughout the batter or dough. I also learned the hard way why the cake or cookies had to be cooled down completely before frosting is added. If they are not cooled down first the baked goods will still be releasing the heat and moisture from the baking, and the frosting will run off the top, That is why modern cookbooks say to put the items on a wire rack once they are removed from the pans — otherwise the frosting will gather on the plate around the item it has slid off of, solidifying as it cools back down. To make cleanup easier, I usually put my wire rack(s) onto a large cookie sheet before doing any frosting.
I think the Christmas cookies are ‘snickerdoodles’. That’s the only holiday cookie I’ve ever made that uses cream of tartar.
Thanks for a lovely essay. My grand and great grandmother’s cook book from the Hill of Zion Church in LeGrande Iowa, circa 1910, has some recipes with instructions, and some with skimpy suggestions. Experimenting with making the food is a delight.
I really enjoyed your Christmas Baker’s poem!
An enlightening post! I’ve made enough cakes and cookies from scratch in my lifetime to have the order of ingredient assembly down pat. But if I didn’t and came across a “recipe” that only listed ingredients and their amounts, I could consult my collection of self-published fund-raising cookbooks compiled by church women’s groups and other community organizations, most from the Fifties and Sixties, but some much earlier. The last are the ones that have me scratching my head. Was a “Tbsp” the same as the largest measuring spoon on the nested ‘spoons we all use now or was it a “table spoon”, i.e. the larger spoon used to serve up side dishes like corn and green beans? Same for “tsp” since spoons to stir tea in the old days were smaller than regular spoons.
The “two teacups equal a pound of sugar” experiment was most interesting! I happen to have a new, unopened 4 lb bag of sugar and two differently shaped teacups that don’t appear to hold the same amount of tea to test this one myself.
Now if someone could solve the mystery of why I, my grandmother and several aunts could never get Grandma’s mother’s banana nut bread recipe to turn out as moist and flavorful as my mother (a notoriously bad cook) did, I could die a happy woman! Each of us over the years tried to replicate it by “shorting” ingredients or using more than the recipe called for, we left out the odd ingredient (as Mother was known to do for no reason), we varied oven temps, baking times, ripeness and number of bananas, etc, all to no avail. Even using her own baking pans, measuring cups/spoons, etc made not a wit of difference. Considering each of us noted every variation and the result, we probably would’ve qualified for a research grant of some sort. We were that serious to discover Mother’s secret!
This post brought back so many memories in so many ways. It is not often that I come across someone who has a connection to Houlton Maine where I was born. I had forgotten about my grandmother’s wonderful molasses cookies until I read your post. I don’t have the receipe, but I am very sure my aunt does. When making her donuts, my grandmother would use a gingerbread man cookie cutter for some of the donuts. Then she would deep fry them the old fashioned way in lard. These “donut men” were always a special treat for her grandchildren.
The Christmas cookie recipe sure sounds voluminous in the weights given! I guess there were a lot of family members and/or neighbors to share with.
Very interesting. We don’t have too many handed down recipes. My Gramma made things like plain beef stew and creamed onions and apple pie. She once threw out a bunch of garlic at my aunt’s house because she didn’t know what was. My Mom was not a good cook but went through a brief “Julia Child” phase. The cookies I make at Christmas are a very spicy version of Dutch speculaas in honor of our Jersey Dutch heritage and because they are so good. I got the recipe out of the New York Times when our boys were little in the early 90s. The recipe calls for a tablespoon of cinnamon plus 5 other spices and each cookie has an almond on top.
Fun article and I enjoyed your version of The Night Before Christmas :-). My Scottish grannie once showed me her recipe for shortbread (not written down, of course!) which – from my recollection – consisted of a pound of this, a half pound of that, and a 1/4 lb. of the other ingredient. I am still trying to remember but I think the pound was a pound of butter, and a half pound of flour and – essentially – a cup of sugar. Still haven’t managed to duplicate it somehow!!!
Thanks to PJ Hansen for explaining the use of the kerosene emulsion. That’s one that I had never encountered before, so was very intrigued, but the explanation made sense as there were frequently insects which had to be thwarted.
One of the recipes from my grandmother was for her version of potato salad which came on the table at Christmas and other holidays when the family got together. I found a list of ingredients without accurate measurements and much later learned that some ingredients were not even listed, so it never tasted the same as her version. Thanks for sharing these comments and reminders.