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Family is Recipe for Memorable Traditions

Generations of cooks provide ingredients for holiday fare.

There is no question that I do more cooking  — and certainly baking — in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas than any other time of the year.

As the cold weather sets in and the holiday buzz begins, I tend to cocoon at home. That nightfall seems to arrive in late afternoon only intensifies my desire to stay put.

The colder weather also means we eat heartier — pot roasts, stews and homemade soup are the comfort foods that provide sustenance against plunging temperatures.

The cookie jar — which can sit for months gathering nothing but dust — gets filled far more often in the winter. Warm cookies from the oven with a cold glass of milk or a cup of tea are great therapy.    

That brings us to Christmas cookie baking, a requisite part of our holiday tradition. As our kids have grown older, I have pretty much taken on this task single-handedly. When they were younger it meant hours of sticky hands, gobs of frosting and enough sprinkles to put us all into sugar comas. I would take those hours back in a heartbeat.

When I was a child, cookie baking was a three-generation, daylong ritual. Head baker was my great aunt, Auntie Mae, who had the Midas touch when it came to anything in the kitchen (or pretty much everywhere). Even her tuna salad tasted better than any I’ve ever eaten.

Auntie Mae came from a long line of great cooks including her father, my great grandfather. Alexander Dickinson was a cook on the Great Lakes ships from the 1890s to the WW I years. He cooked on the ships during the shipping season, and then headed to the Upper Peninsula, where he cooked in the logging camps.

Each Christmas, my great aunt would bring a container filled with Hermit cookies baked from my great grandfather’s recipe. They were dense, spice-filled cookies chock full of chopped dates and pecans.     

When my great aunt passed away, I was fortunate to get her notebook stuffed with recipes. Among them was the recipe for her father’s Hermit cookies.

In an attempt to carry on the tradition, I have made these cookies numerous times but they never taste they way I remember, certainly not the way Auntie Mae made them. That the recipe merely lists the ingredients with few specifics on amounts is frustrating. I’ve tried to piece together current recipes for the same cookie but to no avail.

My great aunt’s cache of recipes contains many dating back four generations. There is her mother’s recipe for gingerbread and Christmas pudding (with the requisite suit and fruit), her father’s Johnny cake and white cookies, and cake recipes from Aunt Bell Abbott and Aunt Maggie Hibner, relatives unknown to me but worth researching on the family tree.

Family recipes not only tell us much about our own heritage and culture, but also are a culinary chronology of the times. Auntie Mae’s book contains many recipes clipped from the Detroit newspapers . . . some dating back to the 1930s. Among my favorites are recipe winners from the WWII era. One is titled “Contest on War-Time Uses for Sour Milk and Sour Cream.”  The winning recipe was Sour Milk Spice Cake by Mrs. Louis Di Lanna of 2250 Monterey, Detroit (yes, they actually printed addresses in the newspaper).

There is a also a recipe for First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s “Million Dollar Fudge,” a perennial Christmas favorite during my childhood. It’s one that I still make today, more than 50 years after it was first published.

I find it interesting that neither my great aunt nor my grandmothers were cookbook collectors (my mother and I more than made up for that oversight).  The cookbooks saved were mostly regional or local cookbooks assembled by local churches or organizations.

These locally produced cookbooks are an enormous part of American culinary history. You can go back nearly a century to find many Northville-produced cookbooks. The Northville Historical Society Archives contains several of these including the 1932-issued Tasty Hints from the Nellie Yerkes Auxiliary of the First Presbyterian Church, and Prizekeepers of Northville by Orient Chapter No. 77.

My two stained, dog-eared copies of Mothers’ Club of Northville cookbooks (one is Hometown Favorites published in 1992, the other is minus its cover and introductory pages containing the publication date) are testament not only to their popularity but the quality of the recipes. These are my “go to” cookbooks for just about anything. While the recipes are great, the fact that I know who the recipe came from adds to the appeal.

I suspect that is why Auntie Mae wasn’t one for cookbooks. Her notebook was a collection of much loved recipes from those she cherished the most — her family and friends. 

There is no better recipe than that.

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