I grew up telling people that my gran was the greatest baker in the world. Sugar and spice seemed to bend to her will and everything that she made was nothing short of a miracle. I don’t think it was in her to make something that didn’t taste good. I was convinced that she could boil an old shoe and somehow make it a palatable experience. Her apple pie could bring a tear to your eye and her Sunday supper biscuits were something so divine that they gave birth to a whole new religion that I heard is still practiced to this day in a small town twenty miles northeast of Escanaba, Michigan. If perfection ever existed it did so in my grandmother’s kitchen.
When it came to gran’s goodies everyone had their favorite treat. My ma never could seem to get enough of her chunky maple walnut fudge and I do believe that both of my brothers, if allowed, could have sustained themselves exclusively on the buttery sweetness of her honeyed rolls. Out of every ambrosial confection that filled my childhood nothing was nearer and dearer to my heart than the sugar cookies gran would make every year for Christmas. I used to wait in anticipation for the day their intoxicating aroma would fill the house with warmth and bathe it in a sugary glow. Over the years I have accepted that I may have in-fact held somewhat of a biased opinion about my grandmother’s culinary capabilities, but to me those cookies were famous and there wasn’t a man alive who could tell me otherwise. They were simply perfect in every sense of the word and I couldn’t imagine celebrating a Christmas without them.
I found that my freshman year of college was a particularly hard one for me. Everything was so strange and new and for the first time in my life I was spending the holidays away from the comfort of home. I tried telling myself that it didn’t bother me much and that I was getting too old to be burdened by such childish concerns, but as the days ticked down and Christmas grew closer it became more apparent that I was clinging to a lie. Everyone around me seemed to be beaming with the joy of the season and I wanted so badly to feel the same, but it did not come as easy to me as it had the years before. Christmas just didn’t feel like Christmas without gran and her sugar cookies.
Christmas had always been my favorite holiday and I was bound and determined to not let something as silly as being halfway across the country ruin it for me. I tried everything that I could to pull myself out of my slump, but all the twinkling lights in the world couldn’t fill the cookie sized hole that was eating away at the remnants of my holiday spirit. I needed something bigger and better than a cheap string of garland and the same six Christmas songs the local DJ insisted on looping. So on December twenty fourth with six hours left until Christmas I allowed a half of a pint of rum to convince me that, even though I hadn’t baked anything outside of a frozen pizza in years, whipping up a batch of my grandmother’s sugar cookies was at the very least a manageable feat.
A brief and clumsy rummaging through my cupboards had cruelly brought to my attention that I did not in-fact have a single thing that I would need to make those cookies. In that moment I had almost let defeat wash over me, but once again the liquor coursing through my bloodstream took over and before I knew it I was walking the three blocks to AJ’s convenience. AJ ran a small shop, but it had most of your basic pantry staples and it was always open so I felt as confident as I could that they would have everything that I needed. I decided that if all else failed I still had a half of a bottle of rum in the freezer.
“Merry Christmas!” a disembodied voiced called out, almost in unison with the artificial bell chime that whined when I passed through the breezeway of the party store.
“Merry Christmas” I responded as I rounded the corner and saw AJ standing there stocking shelves, dressed from head to toe in a cheap crushed velvet Santa suit. “Well, someone is enjoying the holiday” I chuckled.
“Always” AJ said with a smile.
“Hey, so if I were cookie ingredients and I were somewhere in your store where would I find me?” I asked, hope dripping from every word.
“Isle three, all the way at the end” he said, pointing with the bottle of pop in his hand.
“Thank you thank you” I responded with a bow of my head, shooting passed him and down the third isle.
As I paced the baking needs section contemplating the two shelves of goods that I had to pick from it became abundantly clear to me that I didn’t actually have any idea how to make those cookies, or anything even resembling them. I had made them with gran before, but I was young and most of my memory consisted of playing with and eating the batter so the bulk of the recipe was lost on me. Never really being the type to allow the lack of know-how to prevent me from doing something, I came to the conclusion that muscle memory and a push in the right direction was all that I needed.
“Hey AJ, you bake?” I yelled across the store.
“Yea, sometimes.” He responded as he walked towards me, bridging the two isle gap between us. “What choo need, Sis?”
After several minutes of over sharing my Christmas woes, I selected a handful of ingredients that we both agreed were probably almost definitely in someone’s sugar cookie recipe and I was on my way.
“Ppfftt, Pillsbury” I grinned as I unloaded what I considered to be “real” cookie ingredients on to my counter. I appreciated all the help AJ gave me, but I found the fact that he thought a bag of pre-mix cookie dough could hold a candle to a good old fashioned batch of something homemade almost laughable. I didn’t want some cheap knock off. I was in search of the real McCoy.
I wasn’t really sure where to start, but staring down at an empty mixing bowl in an attempt to conjure a memory proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Butter and flour were the only two things that really stuck out in my mind and even then I wasn’t sure of the proper proportions. I couldn’t believe that I had lived my whole life without ever asking gran how she did what she did. It was selfish of me in a way.
“Flour, butter, sugar . . .” the words continuously passed over my lips until I robbed them of their meaning.
I twirled handfuls of hair and paced the floor, but that didn’t seem to help much with my memory either and when the oven finally reached temperature it began taunting me with its incessant beeping. I knew that I would most definitely destroy any and all innocent ingredients that I put my hands on, so I decided to do what I should have done before even going to the store. I called gran. It was really the only solution.
“You want to know how to make my sugar cookies?” gran laughed through the phone, each word cracking with amusement. “Oh Honey, you make an old woman blush. Them ain’t nothing special.”
Gran was very humble. I always found that to be such an endearing quality. She had the sweetest way of over simplifying things and underselling herself sometimes. That was not one of those times. The words that followed “them ain’t nothing special” have haunted my mind ever since they were first uttered.
“Honey, those are just Pillsbury”, gran snorted.
Even though my grandmother’s sweet little voice was still coming through the phone the only thing that I could hear was the soft hum of my childhood crumbling to the floor. I had been living in a cookie house of lies. It caused me to wonder what other falsehoods I held dear. What else was she hiding? Was I really her favorite? Was her name even really gran? I grew up telling people that my gran was the greatest baker in the world and for the most part I still believe that to be true, but now I know that she was also one hell of a con-woman.