When I was a child
and my family still kept in touch with our extended relatives
, I would spend each Christmas
in St. Louis, Missouri
. Like most children, Christmas excited me
. I looked forward to the chance of staying in a hotel and seeing an alien land
with streets I didn't know, buildings too tall, and people talking in accents
ever so slightly different from my own. That I was invariably in miserable poor health during the holiday season, whether with cold
, or flu
, was for the most part irrelevant. The relatives too had their place in my happy expectations.
There was Uncle Gus and his house among the run-down farms in the rural stretches
outside the city. I would stay in the upper guestroom, where there was a kitchen I was afraid to enter
and a window that looked out over dead grass only partially snow-covered
. He was a big man, moustached
, often drunk
, but a good giver of hugs
and kind enough to register a place on the Nice People
mental list children of that age keep meticulously.
There was Grandmother and her elderly caretaker
Joe, their house of fragile German figurines and elegant printed china. Dinners would be vague affairs of moving about food I couldn't eat as my grandmother complained of the difficulty in making food she hadn't cooked
, my father smiled gently, and my mother looked nervous. But there were her old, grandiose decorations and her lovely lavender scent
and that look of regal distance, like a czarina
watching the innocent play of her throne-destined heir
. And the presents were a joy; intricately wrapped affairs of the greatest precision, no less exact for seventy years of gradual decay by the force of arthritis
. And Joe's miniature train set, its precisely placed stations and hotels and homes, his amber laughter
and the smell of his pipe
. These things were worth the anachronistic badgering and my mother's discomfort
, like a nebulous buzzing in the background of my incomprehension.
But best was Aunt Gert. She was actually my Great Aunt, strictly speaking, and during half of our Christmas visits she was non-existent
. The other half, Grandmother oddly faded from mention. In her youth Gert had been a flapper
, and she'd never really lost that modernistic
flavor even as the gaudy dresses gathered dust in the closet and her Charleston
grew out of practice. She was full of smiles and warm kisses and bawdy jokes that would rouse me even from nauseated or medicated stupor into giggling. Her Christmas tree was decorated with stunning hand-crafted German
ornaments she'd insisted were actually from Ireland ever after 1941
. On the table there always stood a detailed nativity scene
toward which I would gravitate every visit. She delighted in my cute Catholic school boy
prayers and my simple piano tunes, but most of all in hearing about everything that had happened in my life the past year.
It's frustrating when no one takes you seriously, at whatever age. Children probably suffer this lack of interest
from those around them more than anyone. It's not for lack of effort, but rather a basic divide between the world of youth and the world of adulthood, never really narrowing till puberty runs its course
. No wonder they get grumpy. Somehow, by her good cheer, her sprightly heart, or her uncommonly attentive ear, Aunt Gert always gave the impression of sincere interest and comprehension
. She perfectly understood the joy of the kickball victory, the tragedy of the broken watch, the love affairs with teddy bears and silly poem books
; all the trials and tribulations of youth. And when I finished my epic tale, she would let out a tinkling laugh, kiss me on the cheek, grin at my parents
, and toddle off toward the kitchen. Soon she would return, a silver tray carried carefully in hand, stacked with pale cookies in the shapes of snowmen, stars, Tannenbäume, and little mangers. We would feast and share the delight of family at a time of peace
as the sky darkened and the lights bathed her little street in a pale yellow glow.
This is the recipe for Great Aunt Gertrude's Christmas Fig Cookies, passed down to my father after her death
in 1995. It was an invention of her sister, Lizzie Moritz, and remains a yearly tradition of my family. The cookies aren't too hard to make, and they turn out wonderfully, subtly sweet and with just a little tartness, something suited to snowy nights just outside the window. I will include the original ingredients below, with comments to update them slightly for the 21st century. Measurements in metric are hardlinked.
- 1 cup butter (not margarine)
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup regular milk (not 2% or skim; whole milk)
- 5 cups sifted flour (modern flour needs no sifting, a 2lb bag or more is necessary)
- 4 tsps baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 pkgs figs (without stems) chopped (we get Athina Kalamata Figs, imported from Greece by John's Import Foods, but most brands will do. It's best to choose lighter figs over darker figs, the very dark ones are sticky and dissolve during cooking)
- A large spoon
- 2 large bowls
- Butcher knife and cutting board
- Cookie sheet
- Cookie cutters
- Measuring devices
- Wash your hands. There's enough sickness going around during the winter, no need to aid its spread.
- Preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This may need modification if you live in a high or low elevation region.
- Unpackage the figs and chop off the stems on a clean cutting board. If the figs are tough and dry, soak them in water and drain. Slice each fig into six to eight pieces, depending on the size of the fig.
- Using a rocking motion with the knife, chop the figs into very tiny pieces. If the pieces are too large, it will be difficult to cut the cookies. Too small, and you'll have a fig paste that somewhat defeats the purpose. Try to achieve a happy medium between those two extremes, to your own taste.
- Thoroughly mix flour, baking powder, and salt with a large spoon. Everything should be as evenly mixed as possible.
- Let the butter sit for a time in the open or melt it slightly under heat, then cream it with sugar in a bowl. It should not be dry and crumbly.
- Add eggs and knead together by hand. The end result after several minutes of kneading should be a gelatinous mass.
- Add the flour/baking powder/salt mixture, milk, and figs. Knead the mixture further for several minutes. You'll eventually have typical dough.
- Spray the cookie sheet with a light coating of oil or smear with butter, then flour the sheet slightly and roll out the dough thickly.
- Flour the cookie cutters and press down very hard. Remove the excess.
- Bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 25 minutes (depending on your oven). Remove the cookies before they grow brown; at that point they will be much too hard. The perfect fig cookies are firm and chewy (not like chocolate chip etc. cookies).
- Enjoy this slightly quirky, but very delicious Christmas treat!
For The Ninjagirls Christmas Special
. Relax, enjoy the general good cheer/work-free time, and remember: Winter solstice is the reason for the season