Baking memories

December 18, 2018

Margaret’s Hebrew cookies. Also known as butter pecan cookies, or pecan meltaways

There are a lot of things I love about making Christmas treat gifts. I love the way it makes the house smell. I love the sense of accomplishment of seeing a big tray or basket of holiday goodies all festively packaged. I love the pleasure the recipients seem to get from them.

And I love the things they make me remember. 

This year, there are some new things in the repertoire (I try to add new things every year, though that means some old favorites will have to drop out). Some don’t remind me of anyone, but are just recipes I thought I wanted to try. But one addition to the lexicon has had me smiling at happy memories all afternoon.

When I make the chocolate oatmeal stove-top cookies, I think of Mama, who made those for me a lot. When I make the pralines, I think of Mrs. Eunice Cole, the former county clerk, who made them for the county potluck one year, and gave me the recipe. When I make the fudge, I think of the years when my kids were little and I first learned to make this, and how I had to make two batches of peanut butter fudge because that was their favorite and they didn’t want me to give it away.

A long time ago, in a gallery far, far away, I was in the newspaper bidness. I started out fresh out of college — actually, in March before I graduated in May — at a little community daily in West Memphis. I worked there close to 15 of the next 20 years, in three separate stints. Those folks were, and many still are, like my family.

Christmas at a little hometown newspaper is wonderful. All the ladies whose club news and such you’ve run all year long show up with trays and bags and such of holiday goodies, and folks on staff fill in the gaps with their own homemade specialties. Stuff got spread out on a vacant desk in the newsroom, and everyone in the place trooped through from time to time to grab a nibble.

The first Christmas, one lady brought by her famous bourbon balls, which shocked the Baptist preacher, who came by some time later and sampled one, immeasurably when he learned there was bourbon in them. There were lots of other goodies — I particularly remember someone’s peanut brittle, which was marvelous. And one day Billy, our sports editor, asked Margaret, our obit-and-church-news-writer, “Margaret, when are you gonna bring Hebrew cookies?”

“Going to make the this weekend,” said Margaret, a sprightly 65-year-old who had begun working at the paper before most of us were born. And I thought, “H’mmm,” and settled back, waiting for Monday to find out what a Hebrew cookie was. 

Come Monday, there was a big ol’ tray of little round ball shaped cookies coated in powdered sugar. I bit into one, and lo, it was what I’d had before and always knew as a pecan meltaway or a butter pecan cookie. 

Margaret was a piece of work. She had had her 65th birthday party, which she dubbed her “Medicare party,” right before I came to work there. When I left for the last time, 20 years later, she was still there, writing church news and obits. I think she ws 88 when she finally retired.

I hadn’t been there long when we all loaded up and went to a conference, which some bozo had booked in a dry county. (For a bunch of newspaper people? Seriously?) What to do? 

“Y’all come on to my room. I brought a bottle.” Margaret announced.

I cannot see Canadian Club without thinking of her.

For the bulk of that time I worked with her, she was doggoned near crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. She sat at her desk with her foot cocked up on a chair, her knee very nearly at her chin, as she typed. Her fingers were so bent and gnarled I don’t know how she typed, but a deadline never came but what the obits were done. And they were RIGHT. And a Friday never came but what the church news was finished, all 60-odd inches of it, twice that at Easter and Christmas. And she wrote a column every week, and covered the West Memphis School Board monthly.

She was magnificent. 

She finally got so crippled with arthritis she had to quit making the Hebrew cookies, whose butter and sugar she creamed and whose super-thick dough she mixed by hand, for the 10 dozen or so she made every year. She’d wait until her beloved only granddaughter came home from college, and Kelly would make cookies with her. And we continued to have Hebrew cookies every year. 

I asked Margaret once why she made herself get up and get out in nasty weather, before daylight in the winter and shortly after it in the summer, to come to the paper. “Because if I didn’t have to get up, I’d stay in bed, because it doesn’t hurt when I’m lying in bed,” she replied snippily. “And if I stayed in bed, it wouldn’t be long until I couldn’t get out of bed.

“Besides, if I don’t show up at work one day, y’all will know something is wrong, and you’ll come check on me, and I won’t lie in the floor dead for three or four days until the weekend when the kids come over.”

One morning, one my reporters called right before I left the house at 6:30 a.m. “Kay, I just got here and Margaret isn’t here. And she’s not answering her phone.”

“Call the police and tell them to meet me at her house,” I said. “Tell them I’m breaking in.”

I didn’t have to break in, as I knew where she kept her key (inside a pillow cushion in the seat of her Ford Taurus). I went in and there was Margaret, lying in the floor. We thought we’d lost her that time — she did a good stint in ICU — but she was back at work in three months. Like I said, she was magnificent.

So I made Hebrew cookies today. Two batches of them, which still makes only about half the 10 dozen Margaret turned out annually. They’re not as good as hers, and I used my stand mixer. But damn, I enjoyed thinking about her today.

You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em show up tomorrow. We’re making candy, and I could use some extra arms to stir fudge. 

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