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The Cookies of Christmas Past

Grandma's recipes are always better than Martha Stewart's.
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(Photo: nicholasjon/Flickr)

(Photo: nicholasjon/Flickr)

“Christmas and cookies are inseparable,” or so says one of America’s favorite cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking. My copy of the kitchen mainstay, one of the 18 million in circulation, came from an estate sale: a tiny house on Kent Island whose occupants were total strangers to me, but whose contents were entirely familiar. The objects that make a house a home are so often the same: towels and teapots, pans and plates, coffee mugs and picture frames, as well as books.

The copy of The Joy of Cooking that left that abandoned house and came home with me has an inscription that is worth returning to this time of year. On Christmas Day in 1977 a man inscribed this particular copy to his partner:

To the ‘joy’ of my life
who taught me to smile
to enjoy all the good things of life.

Their names could be any two names, and the inscription, of course, could be the summary of any happy partnership. So even though the words were not written for me, I love returning to them, especially around the occasion they mark. The Joy of Cooking has taught me many things: everything from mixing drinks to carving poultry, but it’s also a useful guide for baking, decorating, and storing cookies this time of year. There are good recipes for oatmeal raisin, gingerbread, chocolate chip, peanut butter, and macaroons.

But there are some recipes not included in those pages. For those, I go to my mother’s recipe box. A family member or friend hand-wrote every one of the index cards in that box; it was an extraordinary wedding gift, one that took my aunt weeks to organize. The cards went out, and then one by one they returned, filled with recipes for preacher cookies and wedding cookies, my grandmother’s sugar cookies, my great aunt’s molasses cookies.

We cling to the old cards and secondhand cookbooks because they bring with them the residue of kitchens past, chefs gone before.

There’s a reason that the epigraph for The Joy of Cooking invokes inheritance. “That which they fathers have bequeathed to thee, / earn it anew if thou wouldst posses it,” it reads, a quotation from Goethe’s Faust. Whenever we cook, whatever we cook, we reckon with all the things that were cooked for us—all those people and all their recipes, the kitchens of partners and parents, friends and grandparents, anywhere a meal was ever cooked for our nourishment.

There’s a reason that, despite the convenience of apps and sites like Allrecipes or Pepperplate, we still cling to cookbooks and recipe cards. It isn’t just that our phones melt on stove-tops and our tablets can be ruined by egg whites or oil. We cling to the old cards and secondhand cookbooks because they bring with them the residue of kitchens past, chefs gone before. That sticky residue of history is most appealing this time of year. Even after I’ve filled care packages and gift tins with the mainstays of The Joy of Cooking, I bake the cookies I remember having baked for me as a child.

Recipes, like books, are best secondhand. It is, of course, absolutely fine to find something to cook in the collections of Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, but it’s quite different to bake the cookies that my grandmother is no longer here to bake. Quite different, too, to return to the old copy of The Joy of Cooking that lived for decades in someone else’s kitchen. It honors the joy shared by some couple I never knew, their smiles and cooking unknown to me except for this one relic that moved from their shelves to mine.