We were expecting a blizzard this week, but mostly got an icy, slushy mess. Still, it was enough to give us one and a half snow days, and lots of family time at home. It’s pretty much a given that whenever a snow day is predicted, I first check to make sure we have enough supplies to get us through a couple of days at home, and then immediately start looking for cookie recipes. There are at least three good reasons for this: 1) Baking even simple recipes is a great project that can kill a good hour of being trapped in the house with stir-crazy kids, 2) well, duh, it makes yummy snacks for eating, and perhaps most importantly, 3) it makes me feel like a good mom presiding over a happy home.
It’s ridiculous but true. I have this image in my head of what a happy home should look like, not to mention smell like. It is, more or less, this perfect picture of a smiling, patient mother baking cookies in the kitchen with her well-behaved, contented children, while delicious aromas waft through the house. Later, when the kids come back in from playing in the snow, they can warm up in front of the fireplace, dunking the cookies in cups of steaming hot cocoa.
I’m not really sure where this picture comes from, or why it’s been implanted so firmly in my brain. If I think back, I can vaguely recall similar images in the Nestle Tollhouse advertisements, or the commercials that came out around Christmastime, when families would bake plates of cookies to leave out for Santa. But why these stuck in my head (especially since, as a nice Jewish girl, I never celebrated Christmas or baked for Santa), and somehow became my guiding vision for what my home should someday be like, I cannot say.
The thing is, when I was growing up, nobody in my house ever baked cookies, or anything else for that matter. I’ve mentioned it only briefly before—it isn’t something I talk about very often—but I had a pretty unusual childhood. Both my mother and my stepmother died of breast cancer; my mom when I was seven years old, and my stepmother when I was 14. I daresay it is the curse of Ashkenazic Jewish women everywhere, and it hit my household particularly hard.
Life was complicated back then. My father was an incredible parent, who went above and beyond the call of duty in so many ways. But most days were about simply getting by. He worked hard all day and came home to take care of the family at night. We were well cared for, and even well-fed. Yet, while he cooked regularly, baking was an extravagance. It was a labor of love that also took extra time and energy, something in short supply in our house. Suffice it to say, that with all the collective months and years of illness and treatment, there just wasn’t anything leftover for baking cookies.
I write this not as a woe is me (technically, “woe is I”, for all you grammarians) kind of tale, but to illustrate the fact that, growing up, what I wanted most in the world was a “normal family”, or at least what I imagined that to be. To make matters somewhat worse, during the years that I was part of an extended step-family, there were four children in our household, two boys and two girls, all very close in age. We looked shockingly like the Brady Bunch, only short one boy and one girl, but still including the housekeeper, whom my father had hired while still single to help out around the house. Comparisons to the all-American TV family were made regularly, and I swear that new visitors to our home were just waiting for our housekeeper to walk out of the kitchen in a freshly starched apron, whistling and carrying a tray of freshly baked cookies. But, even she was overwhelmed with other responsibilities, having recently made the switch from caring for a family of three to a family of six. And, families rarely “blend” as smoothly in real life as they do on TV.
When I was in high school, my best friend’s family lived in an old Victorian home, filled with antique furniture and always smelling like a mix of what I can only describe as “old” and, of course, cookies. Her mother loved to bake, and I loved to go to her house after school and see what goodies awaited us in the kitchen. When we both went away to college, her mom would send her care packages of cookies. Once, she even sent one to me in California. By the time it arrived, it was little more than a package of stale, broken bits and pieces, but that didn’t bother me in the least—I savored every crumb.
No one from my own family ever had, or ever would, send me a box of homemade cookies. I literally sat there and cried when I opened the package and saw what was inside. I told my roommate, who was watching me sob over a box of smashed cookies that they had just made me homesick. But that wasn’t exactly true. I was homesick for a home and family that I never really had.
Many years later, after Jay and I had been living in Israel for several years, and were already engaged, we took a trip back to Michigan to spend some time with his family. This was middle America at its finest: people were unnaturally courteous, no one ever actually used their car horns, and cashiers would make polite conversation as they scanned your groceries. When we arrived at their quaint, picturesque lakefront home, we were greeted by two friendly dogs and the smell of freshly baked, albeit slightly burnt, cookies. The burnt-ness didn’t detract in the slightest—everyone burns a batch now and then. (As it turns out, this happened quite a bit more frequently than I realized. To this day, my husband and his sister actually prefer the burnt ones, partially out of nostalgia, but mostly because they learned to like them that way.) To me, their house looked and smelled like a Norman Rockwell scratch-and-sniff sticker.
If I couldn’t have it growing up, or in my own family of origin, I could at least marry into it. And, I could try to recreate it later for our own family, though I was never much of a baker myself. (She who lives in glass houses shouldn’t throw burnt cookies.) But, let’s face it, it’s not about the cookies, per se. I mean, I like a good chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin as much as the next guy (ok, maybe a little more), but it’s really about what they represent to me. And, to me, it’s about happiness, and normalcy. It’s about having the time and patience to be in the kitchen, treating your family to something special. It’s about feelings of warmth and love.
For the record, it isn’t just me. Having both sold a house and searched many (well over 100!) for possible purchase, I have been astounded at the number of realtors that tell their clients to either bake cookies before prospective buyers arrive, or, at the very least, buy one of those scented candles that makes it smell like you did. There is something about the smell of baking cookies that advertises a warm, cheerful home in which to raise a family.
It isn’t just cookies either. We have all kinds of associations with foods that stimulate intense emotion. Back when I was teaching college courses on Culture and Food, I used to give my students an exercise. I would hand out notecards with the name of a food printed on it. Examples might include apple pie, hot dogs, caviar, tacos, etc…I would ask them to free associate and write down whatever came to mind when they read the card. It was always immediately clear that every one of us has deep-rooted connections to food, both personal and cultural. Food is profoundly meaningful, and the smells, tastes—even their mere mention—can elicit powerful responses. How often have we seen a recipe, smelled a flavor, or tasted a dish that immediately took us back to a different time and place in our lives?
Baking cookies on a snow day isn’t going to make me a better parent to my children than my father was to me. But it does seem to improve everyone’s mood, make my house smell better, and add some fun indulgence to our snow day. And maybe someday, when they walk into a house that smells like cookies, or they bake on a snow day with their kids, they’ll think of me and laugh at how crazy I was about cookies. I just hope it is a purely positive memory—one that makes them smile and remember growing up in a warm, happy home.