I’m sure you recognize these cookie cutters: a faux-festive leaf, a doomed turkey, a stunted evergreen. At one time there was a Santa whose pack protruded from his back, giving him a distinctly hunch-back profile. I don’t know what became of him.
Not to detract from their utility; they and an assortment of stars and bells and snowflakes did yeoman’s service, Christmas after Christmas, until I inherited the cookie cutters crafted by my Grandpa Smith for his wife, Grammy Smith, a century or more ago. There must have been a dozen or so in all. Four have come to me: the tree, the Santa, the bird, and the outline of a wreath.
I never knew Grandpa Smith. He died years before I was born. But I felt I knew him from the stories my dad told and wrote about his “pop”, a small-town grocer in eastern Pennsylvania in the early years of the the twentieth century. One of my most cherished possessions is a little book my dad wrote, called My Pop the Grocer, a collection of his memories of childhood during the years leading up to the Great Depression. In it, we learn that, in addition to being an astute businessman who fought the good fight against the reviled Chain Stores, Grandpa was an inventor and a putterer. If the cookie cutters are any indication, his imagination and joy of creating outstripped his grasp of function. Re-mastering the cookie cutters has become a December tradition.
For the past few years the cutters have been in the care of my daughter, Erica, so I’m a bit out of practice. But this year I have them back, and yesterday morning I spent an hour making Grammy Smith’s sugar cookies and Grammy Smith’s molasses cookies, using Grandpa Smith’s cutters. Oh yes–and I rolled them out on the slate rolling surface that was my mom’s. Even when I’m alone in the kitchen, Christmas baking is a family affair.
The trick in using these cookie cutters is to make a dough soft enough to roll thin but strong enough to keep the delicate figures intact. (Hence, Grammy Smith’s recipes; all those years ago she must have struggled to get it right.) Separating the cookies from the dough, after they’re cut, is an exercise in precision. It’s easier to peel the dough away from the cookie than to lift the cookie out–which is almost sure to separate Santa’s tassel from his hat, if not his entire head from his shoulders. By carefully extracting the dough that gets stuck in the cutter, he can often be stuck back together. The tree hangs together pretty well at the dough stage, but is likely to break at the trunk after it’s baked and if it’s baked too crisp, the lower branches break off. The bird’s tail and beak are always at risk. The wreath is no problem.
But they are a joy to behold, especially the jolly old elf. Whenever I use them, I think about the grandfather I never knew. They remind me that, despite our insane preoccupation with the accumulation and subsequent dispersal of “stuff”, the stuff that ties us to our roots is worth hanging on to…and passing on.