This post is the Pechakucha presentation I gave in Waterville, Maine in October, 2016
When my kids were little I wanted to be Martha Stewart. Not the empire building, insider trading Martha Stewart that you may think of, but more the enlightened homesteading, intentional beauty-creating Martha Stewart that would show the world I had gone pro with my housewifery.
One pre-Christmas in the early 90’s I came upon an article in Food & Wine magazine, or was it Bon Appetit? Because if you’re on the Martha track, you gotta be all in and read from all the sources. It included this simple recipe for cookies in 3 flavors: ginger, chocolate, and sugar. The slides you’re seeing on the screen reflect the ingredients, tools, and process I use to create my version of this recipe.
Something about that recipe triggered a visceral longing for a not-bought holiday thing: a tradition I could start with my children, a gift we could give the extended family, and it would of course, further my legend.
But you know what? That was a lot of dough. I really needed some kind of mixer because my wooden spoon was not cutting it, and I only had 2 baking pans, so I was rotating and stacking cookies all over all my surfaces. And damn, those things can scorch on the bottom if you’re not careful.
And preschoolers like to lick their fingers while they’re working. And they want to decorate them in ways that were inappropriate from a nutritional cookie to topping ratio. They sometimes sneeze, and they are awfully close to the table when they do so. We made reindeers, baby Jesuses, and lobsters and santas, and various other things in those early years.
They had a hole at the top to string them to go on the Christmas tree. Which in retrospect, as a dog owner and toddler raiser, you can’t really rely on the honor system once they’re hung on the tree. From any of them.
After a few years, we hit on something: what if I just bake off people shapes, I decorate some, and I fill cupcake tins with decorations and let the kids have at it? Worked like a charm! Did up a big batch frosting and I brought them to the classroom, hosted cookie swaps with that activity, and it did, in fact, become tradition.
One year a mom asked if I cater? The answer was, of course! Another mom asked if I could package them for a retail shop she worked in, kind of a gift with purchase thing. Why, yes. I had a friend who owned a pizza shop, Mark Fortin of Food Stop, who let me in to use the ovens before the lunch rush. Retail baking began.
It was there we honed in on packaging. Singles versus multipacks, Saran Wrap versus wax paper, colored bows, location, pricing. We specked it all, I bought a kitchenaid mixer, which evolved to the sexy red mixer when I turned 40, bought stackable pans. The answer, as it turned out, was a 3-pack, crackly cello bag, red bow. And coincidently, according to the Population Reference Bureau, or PRB.org, this little package of people is much like this planet of people: predominantly non-white. (the largest ethnicity being the Han Chinese, in case you’re interested.)
We settled on people versus men one year when we got a little punchy and silly after a particularly long shift. I decided that they transcended gender and all that it implies. Then I got to thinking about the quality and source of ingredients: what if I elevated this cookie’s energy by like using an organic King Arthur flour, better eggs, better spices? Eventually I was sourcing more locally, now with Somerset Grist Mill whole grain flour from Maine Grains, for a while eggs from our backyard chickens til the fox got them, hormone free butter. But honestly, there is no substitute for a mini-m&m.
2016 marks year 23. I still hand roll and cut each one. People make disparaging remarks about cookie cutters, but I see it differently. They’re more like haiku to me at this point. Simple, scalable, high volume, with tiny differentiations that delight people. 6 houses. I got a matriarchal sized mixer for my 51st birthday, and now each batch is 300 people, and the process takes 10 hours.
I’ve experimented a little with going year round with other shapes in other seasons, but I think there’s something inside of me that only wants to do this once a year. When the clocks change, the cold settles in, getting cozy and quiet in my kitchen feels just grounding and primal and right. As we get closer and closer to the darkest day, at the solstice, an urgency around yields starts building, I feel like I want to push to my physical limits. And then, at the return of the light, and once the Christmas crescendo is over, I’m so over this too.
But at the end of October, I put on the Christmas music, arrange my kitchen, and the process of touching, rolling, humidity and temperature takes on something else. Now I make thousands every year. My family wanders in, rotates pans, applies m&ms as we talk about life. For this event tonight, my daughter Emily was on m& m duty and she reminded me of my eye color preferences based on flavor, and how she likes to have their outfits match. Perhaps what I thought I was projecting as Martha Stewart was more Leona Helmsley. I baked for college dorms, auctions, office parties, weddings, and scaled way back on all other non-essential Christmas nonsense.
But I think what’s kept me in it is that tiny bit of joy in seeing a thing come to completion. and of course I can control all the steps, and have a tiny experience of doing one thing well. Flour, butter, eggs, sugar, flavor. For a season.