The Working Waterfront

A serving of nostalgia for the holidays

Dinner, cookies, and candies grow tastier and sweeter with time

Sandy Oliver
Posted 2020-12-03
Last Modified 2020-12-03

When we hang our stockings this year, I’ll fill them with nostalgia. Is it because I am older now that some of my childhood memories seem in sharper focus? (I’ve heard that while oldsters can’t recall where they put their car keys, some details of earlier times come more clearly into view.) Or is it that the pandemic’s fearsome cloud of anxieties make the past seem so much happier, even though I know there were tears and tantrums on Christmas Eve when I was young?

For whatever reason lately, I’ve vividly recalled childhood holiday celebrations from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and since it’s a harmless sport, thought I would do a little historic reenactment this year. I’m blessed with a family that kept Christmas ornaments, mementoes, and recipes so I can even pull out memory-soaked objects to set the stage.

Some are in annual use anyway, like the crèche my dad built in which I place the plaster figures still wearing the Kresge department store price tags on the bottom (Mary and Joseph for ten cents each). For years now on the tree, I’ve hung the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer ornament that was on my first tree in 1947.

For years now on the tree, I’ve hung the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer ornament that was on my first tree…

My sister Sally and I have my mom’s recipes for the cookies she made in large quantities in the run-up to the holiday. Nine hundred of them, many in tin boxes in the attic, stashed to discourage Dad from casual snacking. Mom distributed cookies to friends, neighbors, the hairdressers, carried them to Sunday School Christmas parties, and we ate them, too, all through the holidays.

Now, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas whizzes by, though for a child it’s an eternity. We usually went to my mom’s parents’ house (dad’s folks were gone by then) for Thanksgiving dinner. Standard menu: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, probably squash, pie for dessert. But, olives, green ones with pimentos which I loved, in a glass relish tray which I now own, and celery! Grandpa might offer me a drumstick.

In my earliest years, we merely repeated Thanksgiving’s menu for Christmas dinner when in some years my grandma and grandpa came to our house. When they didn’t, we visited them and other aunts and uncles sometime in the days before the holiday, collecting and delivering gifts, having coffee (instant in those days), and eating cookies. Grandma’s sister, Lee, was a wonderful baker: her snowball cookies, buttery, nutty, and dredged in confectioner’s sugar made a big impression on me. I suppose the recipe is around here somewhere.

Spritz cookies made on a clear day because they keep their crisp lines better than in humid weather, and Gameldags Pepparkakor, a Swedish ginger cookie with orange rind and spice rolled out and cut in holiday shapes gave off lovely aromas. Starlight Mint Surprise, which I’m pretty sure were a cooking contest winner my mom read about in McCall’s or Woman’s Day magazines, which had a chocolate mint in the center, a favorite impossible now to replicate because the candies are no longer made, were transformed in my adult years into mint chocolate chip cookies instead.

Sally has carried on the family cookie tradition, adding lots of other Scandinavian heritage recipes in honor of my grandmother’s birthplace, while my cookie output is pretty small because the rolling and cutting and decorating exasperates me. Maybe this year, with no parties to go to and Christmas ladies’ luncheons on hold, I’ll have time for painstaking cookie making.

Mom made some Christmas candies, too. Simple ones: peanut clusters made with peanuts in melted chocolate, dropped in clumps on waxed paper until they hardened. What fun to put one in your mouth, let the chocolate melt away on your tongue, and then crunch up the peanuts. She was fond of stuffed dates, dates with walnuts inside rolled in coconut shreds. Also, fudge, and from commerce, ribbon candy.

These treats sat in a candy tray on the coffee table in front of the couch, and I sat on the couch facing the tree with the candies between me and the tree. Maybe I asked permission to have yet another peanut cluster or chunk of ribbon candy. Or maybe not. Don’t forget the bowl of nuts with a nutcracker or two and picks: almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts.

When Mom was a girl, she’d find an orange in her stocking, a major Christmas treat because oranges were rare. Even though oranges are dirt common now, I drop one down our stockings in honor of the family tradition, reminding us that life was not always as it is now.

Pray God that next year, life will not be as it is today and that we arrive at another year, alive with a sharpened sense of what, and who, we really treasure.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who lives, gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.