Smells from Christmas Past

With apologies to Marcel Proust.

With another Christmas receding into memory, with wrapping paper ripped from presents and recycled, with food eaten, I find myself once again thinking about those who have gone ahead of us into the unknown. So many of my friends are spending their first Christmas without a loved one–father, mother, son, daughter, friend. No one to make cookies, or cakes or fudge. My heart breaks for each of you. It’s hard to pick up and go forward for the children, for the spouse, for yourself.

Christmas is that time when memories waft back like goodies baking in the oven. For me, each missing loved one is accompanied by a specific smell. My grandmother left us in 1961, but she left behind two smells of the season. Toll House cookies, warm and chewy right from the oven, dunked into a cold glass of milk, are the stuff of childhood. Sure, she’d make them throughout the year, but I only remember them at Christmas. When I smell them baking, she’s in the room with me, helping me test for doneness.

Boston brown bread, full of molasses and walnuts, slathered with cream cheese, was her other favorite. I still make it using her handwritten recipe. I don’t like molasses in anything but her brown bread. She baked in a loaf pans, sometimes in round pans to give it a special circular shape.

Mom baked both the cookies and the brown bread. I came to associate the smells of each treat with my mother. I can feel her, too, in the kitchen, watching to be sure I don’t burn the bread. I haven’t yet, so I know she’s on guard.

My husband Terry’s grandmother made Fasnachts, a pre-Lenten Pennsylvania Dutch treat. Twice risen with potato in the dough and deep-fried, these treats come in different names in different parts of the country/world. Sprinkle with powered sugar and dig in. We use his grandmother’s handwritten recipe. Well, that’s not totally true. We HAVE his grandmother’s handwritten recipe, but it was little more than a list of ingredients. We had to test and retest to figure out how much yeast, how many potatoes, etc. needed to be mixed with eight pounds of flour. Warning: the recipe makes 144 Fasnachts. They freeze wonderfully.

Both of us remember mothers and grandmothers by what they cooked. Will my grandkids remember me for my homemade stews or for nuking bagels? I rather think it will be the latter, but I nuke the best darned bagel in the world.

Hope your holidays were filled with Christmas memories. The good thing is, memories don’t have calories, so you can enjoy them as often as you like. Inhale deeply, dear friends.

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