Grief Cookies. Like Kummerspeck, But Sweeter.

Grief Cookies. Like Kummerspeck, But Sweeter.

Mom and MeMomma was Pinterest before one existed. She was Martha Stewart, Betty Crocker, Emily Post, Jackie Kennedy, and Cher all rolled into one. She made Betty Draper look like a hillbilly and Mary Berry a rank amateur. Where most people were learning to master the electric can opener, she knew when to use a chinois. At Christmas Momma brought out her special linens and her pride and joy, The Cookie Tree, a multi-tiered platter thingy meant to display cookies like it was for the centerfold of House Beautiful. She’d buy glass, Christmas-tree-shaped cookie jars and fill them with at least eight homemade varieties to give as gifts. Hand-delivered no less. And she did all of it with style, grace, and a lot of bitching.

This is probably why I write about food. Because when I stood in the lunch line in 5th grade talking about the Baked Alaska we’d had Saturday night my friends gave back blank stares. Didn’t everyone dine by candlelight while listening to Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back on the turntable? Wasn’t everyone eating sukiyaki and lemon raspberry tart for dessert on a Thursday in suburbia?

Guess not. I’d sit in the lunchroom munching on a dry apple brown betty, trying to enjoy it. At the same time attempting to engage my friends in conversation on the joys of using brownies and mint chocolate chip ice cream in your Baked Alaska instead of the usual yellow cake and vanilla. But they ate Oreos for dessert, hot dogs for dinner, and didn’t understand for a minute what the heck I was talking about.

This is why I write about food. Because Momma made me love it. I learned to grease and flour a cake pan at four, moving on to cake decoration shortly thereafter. Momma was a true Cake Crusader. She had ones for every occasion. Valentine’s Day called for a heart-shaped 4-layer yellow cake with pink frosting covered in tiny heart-shaped red hots. Easter meant rabbit cake, white with vanilla frosting and coconut. Jelly bean eyes and paper ears. It was my job to color and cut out the ears, and never with flimsy white paper either. We used sturdy, colorful construction paper so they’d stand straight. Yep, we were the only bunny cake on the block with purple ears. We were probably the only bunny cake on the block period.

I loved putting the finishing touches on cakes at first, but the older I got, the more I resented it. I grew to resent Easter. I started HATING the whole make the ears task. I’d grit my teeth and cringe – here it comes – she’s going to ask me to cut out the ears I just know it…

“Would you please make some ears for the bunny cake?”

…and I would trudge along to my fate grumbling as only a resentful teenager can do. Not only did I see it as yet another chore, eventually it represented everything I wasn’t allowed to do. I could flour a pan with the best of ‘em, but when it came to baking, the only thing I was qualified for was cutting out bunny ears. Or maybe putting on the frosting if I was deemed worthy. With all other cooking I was assigned to grunt work. I felt relegated to a class lower than dishwasher. Momma was willing to show me how, every way and every time, but not always willing to let me try. Ever.

I think my lifelong hesitance to cook comes from this. I can write about food until the cows come home, but actually cook? Nah. I’m too afraid of failure. Momma never failed. I don’t remember her burning ANYTHING or experiencing any massive culinary failures. Seriously, all of her cooking was perfect. Beautiful, flavorful, perfect.

As a young woman I’d stand at the kitchen counter trying and trying to cook and end up frozen, scared stiff to a standstill. I couldn’t even start because I believed by then meals were events. EVERY meal was an event. And the event had to be a showstopper. It had to be perfect. My Momma, without even knowing, had set the bar pretty damn high.

It was even worse when cooking for someone else. Forget it! It’s quite all right to overcook the pasta when you’re alone, fine, just eat it mushy. But to burn the quail you’re serving for the first time to your family to impress them with your new-found independent zeal? Unheard of. Unthinkable. Cooking for me became episodes of psychotic breakdowns, violent outbursts, shaking fists at the sky and endless profanity. A crying, blubbering mess. The first time my husband and I made Thanksgiving dinner for the family, I had a freak out breakdown because we didn’t have potato rolls on the table. “But Nana ALWAYS had potato rolls!” I wailed. The Hubby rolled his eyes and went to the store.

Momma trained me all those years to be understudy, but she never let me perform. Once I was called upon to do so, I cracked. I just couldn’t do it. At least not well or willingly. Because even before I began, I knew I would fail. And that made me afraid. To this day when I have to cook my chest tightens up. Every meal, every dish is a life or death episode with my psyche because in my heart I know the finished product will be less than.

Why did Momma never let me try? Because obviously, I’d make a child’s mess of things. In her mind it had to be perfect. Which if you think about it is a less than perfect way to be. It’s only now I can see that for what it was. Any failure on my part would’ve been a reflection of her abilities as a cook. In those days, in those times, cooking was the only thing she had, the only way she could express herself to the world. Her art, her creativity. The one thing in the world that was hers. And she wasn’t willing to share.

It’s funny, I sat down to compose a piece on why I’m a food writer, but now I think I should’ve entitled it, “Why I Hate to Cook”. Where cooking is triggering, writing acts as a valve, a way to release those insecurities, those losses, those moments in time at the kitchen counter that still haunt me. It’s less an exercise in torture than a session on a psychiatrist’s couch.

I write about food and it helps me remember. It helps me grieve. I actually started this whole thing because of a cookie I ate in 2001. Momma died that March, the same year I started teaching high school, the same year I got married and we moved 300 miles away to Pittsburgh. In June, only 3 months after she passed. I remember that year as chaotic, full of highest highs and lowest lows. By moving so far away so soon I left memories behind. I left behind grief. I poured myself into my teaching full force and tried to forget how sad I was. Which worked until one uneventful day when I stopped at a Barnes and Noble to grade papers. Purchased a latte and a Reese’s peanut butter cup cookie simply because it sounded delicious.

It was. As I bit into the chewy, nutty cookie and the flavors of chocolate and peanut butter flooded my taste buds so did the memories. I began to cry. Momma used to make this kind of cookie for Christmas, only she would take the dough and mold it around a Hershey’s kiss. So the cookie ended up shaped like a kiss. I bit into this cookie and I couldn’t hold back my tears because it tasted just like hers. EXACTLY like it.

I remembered my Momma, and I remembered Christmas, and I remembered her showing me how to bake cookies, and flour cake pans, and whisk eggs, and make vinaigrette, all those basic things you need in order to build a cooking repertoire. She was teaching me the basics, so I could take it from there. And I didn’t have to be perfect. I just had to try.

I bit into the cookie and I grieved. I grieved for our loss and for myself and all the lessons learned and all the things that went unsaid. Because of a cookie I grieved for my Momma for the very first time ever. People around me probably thought I was crazy, sitting there buried in English essays, crunching away and crying. I didn’t care. I ate. I grieved. I allowed myself to feel sad. I hadn’t made this cookie. She hadn’t made it either. But the cookie reminded me of the woman who’d made it first. A long time ago. And perfectly. Isn’t it funny? You can spend years contemplating why, working it around in your head, trying to figure out why your mother was the way she was. And with one bite of a cookie, it all comes together.

Of course no one is perfect. But Momma never let us see her cracks beneath the surface, her failures whether cooking or otherwise. Everything was always just so whether it was a cookie tree or a perfectly shaped eyebrow. I’m the exact opposite, the consummate oversharer, the Anne Sexton of food writing. Why? To be the complete opposite of Momma? Or am I searching for connection? Maybe I’m longing for other folks to speak up and say, “Yeah, me too. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that.”

I often wonder if Momma held secret insecurities beneath that veneer of seamless perfection. Whether she doubted her choices, her feelings, her purpose in presenting such a beautifully-laid table night after night. Was it enough? I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wondering. Learning to conquer my fear of trying. And mining the memories both beautiful and ugly surrounding the food she made. She gave me mountains of these, more than would fit into 10,000 cookie jars, but none more precious than the ones surrounding a single chocolate and peanut butter cookie. And for that I am grateful.

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