By Anna Mindess
At my grandmother’s house, the silver and blue dreidel-shaped garlands were already hung up for Hanukkah, which came early that year.
“Guess what, Baba?” I asked my Jewish grandmother, after rushing in. “I’m going to be cooking on TV!”
“Mazel tov, darlink,” she said, beaming at me, her only grandchild.
“There’s just one thing, Baba. They want me to make Christmas cookies.”
“Oyyy . . . ehh, whatever makes you happy, shayna [beautiful] doll.”
One day in early December 1980, I got the fateful call from the store’s owner (who held a desk job for the state, did not know how to bake and was not even named Tiffany—there was no Tiffany, she just liked the name).
“Anna,” she said, “the producer of Mid-Morning LA just called and told me that they all love our cookies so much they want someone to come on the show and demonstrate how to bake Christmas cookies with the show’s co-hosts, Geoff Edwards and Meredith MacRae. You know I don’t bake, myself, but aren’t you trying to be an actress? Why don’t you do it?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” I panted into the phone. “At last,” I thought, “my big break!” Then I had a moment’s pause. Not because my first appearance on TV in front of millions of people would be performing a live cooking demonstration while keeping up a witty banter with the show’s co-hosts. Rather, it was the fact that I had never in my 26 years actually made any Christmas-themed cookies.
Of course, I had made plenty of traditional Jewish baked goods with my Baba: triangular, walnut-filled hamantaschen for Purim; dark, moist honey cake for Rosh Hashanah (with her secret ingredient, a can of black cherry soda); menorah- and dreidel-shaped cookies with blue sugar sprinkles for Hanukkah. But Christmas cookies, the most hallowed, American holiday tradition? And what to make? It couldn’t be something flat and boring, just cookie-cutter reindeer or snowmen. No, this had to be spectacular and awe-inspiring to catch the attention of all the casting directors who I knew would be watching.
Clearly, I needed to do some research. Since this was years before the Internet, I headed to my trusted repository of information, the local library. There I hunted down and thumbed through aging copies of Woman’s Day and Family Circle magazines from the housewifey 1950s.
Then I saw them, hanging by ribbons from a classic Christmas tree in the glossy photo: Stained Glass Cookies, diamond- and oval-shaped cookie-dough frames encircling iridescent candy panes, made from melted sourballs that first had to be crushed with a hammer. Perfect! It had everything: color, mystery, violence. And then as a co-star, an impressive foot-high, three-dimensional Christmas tree made of star-shaped cookies that you stuck together from bottom to top in decreasing diameters to form a convincing tree-shaped pyramid. Before assembling the tree, you iced the cookies by pouring thick green icing over them, while they rested atop a wire rack. As the final step, you decorated the cookie tree by attaching little candy ball ornaments.
I had watched enough Julia Child to know I had to fashion the finished products as well as a half-done version and have all the ingredients and steps perfectly prepared and planned out. I memorized the recipes and cooking times and practiced for hours cutting out cookies and narrating my actions at the same time, so I could do both effortlessly. When the big day came, I wore a pink blouse with a bow at the neck and an apron that my Baba had made, for good luck.
The show went by in a rush. They ushered me on stage, set up my props, briefly introduced me to the hosts and “3-2-1- we’re live!”
When it was all over, I called my Baba, who had been watching me at home on TV, of course. “So, Baba, what did you think?”
“Darlink, I’m kvelling [bursting with pride]. You looked gorgeous; you were funny. But next time, maybe you could make some Hanukkah cookies, too.”
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in food and culture and a frequent contributor to The Monthly. She is also a sign language interpreter. See her work at www.annamindess.com.
Illustration by Susan Sanford.
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