by Laura Fieselman
This is a ritual of the finest sort. It begins with dutiful contemplation and moves slowly through a prescribed set of dance moves. It requires specific equipment and traditional music. It crescendos with a pile of dishes in the sink and closes with the same narration each year. This is Christmas cookies at Nana’s house.
Nana, you must know, is my adopted grandmother. I have had the great good fortune to come of age with three lovely women I think of as grandmothers; Nana is the one who lives next door to my childhood home and with whom I spent most afternoons as a kid. Nana and I played gin rummy and baked Easter cakes. We watched The Lawrence Welk Show and sat with neighbors in the yard shelling pecans. We picked raspberries and learned to eat cantaloupe with salt, though I suppose Nana already knew about the salt (she grew up in Salisbury, NC) and it was me who was learning. But one of the best things that Nana and I did was bake Christmas cookies.
It was a thing. Nana reports that she used to start baking the week before Christmas, though in my memory the baking stretched all the way to Thanksgiving. The repertoire was consistent each year: chocolate peanut clusters, Chex mix, cheese straws, ranger cookies, fudge squares, pecan balls, almond bark, molasses cookies, date fingers, cut-out sugar cookies, and a coconut cake. As the treats came out of the oven and cooled, she layered and packed them into tins stacked in the den room. At least that’s what she says. In my memory there were tins of cookies in the closets, under the sofa, and atop the sewing machine. Cookies were everywhere. Come Christmas Eve, Nana would parse the goodies across red plastic plates topped with a doily and deliver them to neighbors, reserving a special stash for our own holiday celebration. It was really a thing.
Life is different now. I don’t live next door, the raspberry bushes are gone, and Nana doesn’t bake as profusely. But just as little-kid me rejoiced in the honor of being allowed to help in the kitchen, adult me relishes the annual cookie baking ritual that persists. This year we set the date for an early December Saturday and I bustled through Food Lion gathering the necessities. The morning was sunny and cold and I was eager to spend the day in kitchen. I plopped my grocery sacks down on the synthetic grass of Nana’s front stoop–her house is one of those ubiquitous red brick ranches that populate so many small-town Piedmont neighborhoods–and rang the doorbell with flowers in hand.
We had contemplated which recipes to tackle and Nana had set the order: almond bark, date fingers, pecan balls, chocolate peanut clusters. I put on the music, a Nat King Cole holiday album on her ancient record player, and Nana lined the proper equipment across the counter: the heavy teal mixing bowl, Uncle Ed’s (our pet name for Nana’s late husband) Army-issue messkit spoon which is the only spoon appropriate for the recipe direction ” drop by teaspoon,” and the crooked scissors for chopping dates. The stack of recipes stood well-worn and at the ready.
We melted, measured, chopped, dropped, stirred, rolled, and baked. We went through bags of pecans and coconut, dates and chocolate chips, brown sugar and powdered sugar. My fierce health-conscious streak averted its eyes as we folded in nearly two pounds of margarine. Trays of cooling cookies began to take over the dining room table. Everything smelled and tasted just right. I washed the heavy teal bowl and the double boiler again and again as they received the different recipes. As we baked we recounted other recent adventures; Nana explained a new recipe for pot roast in the crock pot made marvelous with a packet of Italian seasoning and I told tales of life at school. “Is that all?” she exclaimed as I slid the last batch of pecan balls onto the table. She was joking; we had more treats than we knew what to do with. We layered them between wax paper and packed them into tins, mostly the same tins Nana has used for decades plus a few unorthodox tupperware containers I’d brought with me. I couldn’t wait to share with friends and family, both the cookies and the story; the magic of this baking ritual is as potent as ever. This is Christmas cookies at Nana’s house.
Nana’s Date Fingers
1 stick butter or margarine
1 cup brown sugar
1 8-oz. package dates, chopped
2 cups crisp rice cereal
1 cup chopped nuts (ideally pecans)
1/2 cup flaked coconut
Mix butter, brown sugar, and dates. Cook over medium heat or in a double boiler until completely blended. Remove from heat, add crisp rice cereal, chopped nuts, and coconut. Cool mixture. Shape into fingers and roll in confections sugar. Spread out cookies to cool until set and firm.
Laura Fieselman is a graduate student in the Folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder of Raleigh City Farm. She likes exploring the forests and rivers of North Carolina and delights in all things edible. Strawberries and fried okra top the list of her favorite foods.