I never had home-baked chocolate chip cookies growing up.
This wasn't because Mum wasn't a good baker. She was one of those now rare creatures who could eyeball the proportions of Crisco, ice water, and flour needed to make a perfect, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth pie crust in less than five minutes, worked out her own variation on coconut cake for her sister's birthday dinner, and knew how to make a non-alcoholic fruitcake that not only looked beautiful but tasted good. Her version of a strawberry-lime ice cream pie, made with Jell-O, Lady Borden French Vanilla, and only the freshest berries, was so good that her brother Oscar preferred it to cake for his birthday every year.
As for cookies, Mum's Christmas cookies were so in demand that she'd start baking just before Thanksgiving and continue until there were almost 200 dozen cookies frozen and waiting to be enjoyed by the family or given as gifts. Peanut butter cookies with colored sugar…sugar cookies so light they all but dissolved on the tongue...oatmeal raisin cookies rich with butter and molasses and all manner of delights...tiny bon-bons stuffed with chocolate chips or Brazil nuts or coconut or maraschino cherries, then dipped in a sweet glaze...these were the standards, but she tried other recipes over the years. Some were better than others, but all were good enough to put the rest of the neighborhood to shame.
So why was it that I, her only child, grew up on Mr. Chips, Vienna Fingers, or whatever the local Girl Scouts were selling? Was it lack of maternal love? Lack of time? Refusal to descend to something so mundane when she could have been making a masterpiece?
Oh no. You see, Mum only baked on special occasions, like for birthdays, parties, or the holidays. The rest of the time we made due with whatever pastries her brother Lou brought home from Dudt's on the way home from the steel plant, or whatever Dad picked up at Foodland when he did the Saturday shopping. “I did my time before you were born, kid,” she said to me once with a laugh when I asked why she didn't bake as much as other mothers, and though I asked again, more than once, her answer never changed.
For years I wondered what she meant, and then one night at dinner, when dishes were in the washer and the adults were in a mellow mood, she and Lou started talking about life on the Farm during the summer, and then I knew.
Most of you reading this don't know what life is like on a farm. America is such an urban culture, and we are so divorced from how our food is actually grown, that even home gardeners have little idea of how much actual work goes into wresting vegetables from the soil, milk from the cows, and meat from the livestock. It's hard, dirty, back-breaking labor that means getting up before dawn to tend the animals, constantly weeding and fertilizing and checking the fields, guarding against insects and marauding animals, and praying for the right mix of rain and sunshine to ensure a healthy crop....
And that's with modern technology. Back in the early 1940's, when my grandmother decided that she'd enough of Pittsburgh and that it was time for the whole family to join her husband and youngest son on the farm they owned two hours away in Venango County, it was far worse. The Farm itself had good soil, a clean spring and a stand of trees that was leased to International Paper as a source of pulp, but it was two hours from Pittsburgh and almost half an hour from anything that approached an actual town, so much of the time it was just my grandparents, two of my uncles, Betty, and Mum. The house, which had been built sometime in the mid to late 19th century and was reportedly a station on the Underground Railroad, had electricity and gas, but cooking space was at a premium; the regular kitchen was no more than a narrow corridor off the dining room with a tiny counter, a huge gas stove, and a Hoosier cabinet for a pantry, while the spacious summer kitchen had less counter space than I'd enjoyed in my first studio apartment and doubled as the wash house for the men working the fields.
This was the environment in which my mother, beginning in 1940 when she was twelve, had to cook the noon meals for the threshing teams.
That's right - with only minimal help from my grandmother (who had to tend my grandfather, who had an unspecified but debilitating illness that might have been arthritis or might have been alcoholism) and zero help from Betty (who played the piano and had to keep her hands nice, don't you know), Mum had to cook the midday meal for her brothers Dan and Bob, whatever hired men were there for the season, and sometimes Lou, Charlie, or even Oscar if they were visiting for the weekend. There were usually between eight and ten for dinner, all ravenous after a morning harvesting grain, hay, or whatever vegetables were in season, and nearly that many for an evening meal a few hours later - and after labor that was partially but not fully mechanized, they not only expected quantity, they expected quality on the huge dining room table when they stomped in, kicked the dirt off their boots and sat down to eat.
Mum got very good at this very, very fast. Her dinners weren't fancy - she relied primarily on the old Settlement House Cookbook, with its heavy reliance on Central European roasts, stews, and side dishes - but they were delicious: pot roasts or pork loin or chicken for the main course, accompanies by hot rolls or bread, fresh vegetables, salad of some sort, mashed or boiled potatoes, and either cake or pie, all washed down by spring water and hot black coffee. All of this was from scratch except for the cereal products, from the meat to the salad to whatever vegetables had been brought in the night before, and all of it had to be made every day during the harvest season to fuel the work teams.
Of course this includes the desserts…and since these were either packed with fruit or frosted with butter cream, they were a terrific source of sugar for the energy boost the men needed to counteract that enormous meal so they would be able to go back out and finish the work. And since there so many men, and so many meals, that meant that each dinner or supper had multiple pies, multiple cakes, or sometimes both.
This is why my mother, beginning when she was twelve and continuing until she graduated from college ten years later and
got the hell out of Van moved to Pittsburgh, baked dozens of cookies, enough sweet breads to stock a small bakery, and twenty or thirty pies and cakes every single week during the summer harvest.
Is it any wonder she got so good?
Or that I got Chips Ahoy?