The gingerbread cookies would arrive the moment my grandparents pulled into our narrow driveway on 123rd Street in Omaha for their much-anticipated Christmas visit. The cookie tins, one a repurposed Saltine cracker container, were usually tossed in the trunk, as if they were hostages. My older sister and I would rush the vehicle, perhaps pausing long enough to hug our grandparents, and begin our annual campaign to survive on the sweets of the holiday season.
So remembers my older sis, who more than 20 years ago started calling herself Deborah, as in Deborah Kellogg, her married name. As a boy, I always knew her as Debbie, or sometimes just Deb, an informal, diminutive name that belied her place in the family hierarchy. She was the bossy first child. I was the quiet second one.
Regardless of how I viewed Deborah when we were kids — artistic, culturally aware, soul-sucking Medusa — she became, as so many first-born do, the responsible one as an adult. She checks on and cares for ailing relatives and friends. She sends cards and gifts on birthdays. She knows the family history better than anyone else in the clan.
Deborah has also become, via sheer indifference from the rest of us, the custodian of the family’s gingerbread cookie recipe. In this regard, and in this regard only, she is more Betty Draper than Betty Crocker, failing to notice when the recipe had wandered far away from home.
How else do you explain a nearly 35-year span in which the family gingerbread cookie had not one speck of — wait for it, waaaaait for it — ginger? For more than three decades, Deborah has baked these cookies in all manner of shapes, each without the namesake ingredient, and passed them out to co-workers, family members and “Mommy & Me friends, which is a lot of people,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Mark, and their son, Bryant.
And no one noticed the missing ginger, least of all Deborah herself. “I know,” my sister says now. “It’s embarrassing!”
She reminds me that she sent the offending cookies to me once or twice, too. “Did you ever question if they were gingerbread cookies?” she asks, the accusation ensnaring me like sticky cobwebs in the back yard.
Of course I didn’t. Part of that has to do with a kind of culinary habituation: Once you eat something for so many years, you pay less attention to its flavors and textures, gobbling it down mindlessly, your brain automatically filling in the missing details. I think that is particularly true with our family’s gingerbread cookies. It was a distinctly homely thing in the first place: a thick, dry beast slathered in pink icing (yes, pink) and always in desperate need of dunking in milk. I still loved it, with every molecule in my body, like only a cookie-addicted boy could. It always reminded me of Monna Kuykendall, my maternal grandmother, and her warmth, generosity and (for some unexplained reason) souvenir spoon collection.
Anyway, about two years ago, as the gingerbread story unfolds, Deborah was visiting relatives when she realized the horrifying truth about her ginger-less gingerbread cookies. True to her first-born, bossy-sister personality, she wasted little time regretting her 35 years of spice-free Christmas cookies. Instead, she conducted an FBI-like investigation to track down the origins of the family recipe. By the time she was done, she had collected five gingerbread cookie recipes, spanning four generations, and forwarded them all to me.
Which launched my own attempt to research the recipe that produces a cookie everyone in the family loves to eat, but few love to make. After spending almost an entire weekend reviewing recipes, and baking and baking some more, I came to one incontrovertible conclusion: My family is full of lousy copyists. Every generation made errors in copying the recipe from the preceding generation, sometimes omitting ingredients (such as ginger or a full cup of sugar), sometimes transposing the amounts needed, sometimes neglecting directions altogether. It was a game of telephone, home baker-style, and the message had become so scrambled that it was like Bill the Cat translating the words “I love you!” into “Eck oop thhhttpd!”
The original recipe is attributed to my maternal great-grandmother, Stella Miller, whom everyone called Mimi (pronounced “Mimm-me,” not MeMe). Mimi Miller was born in the late 19th century in Ohio and was known among the family as an excellent baker, remembers my mother. Around the holidays, Mimi would make bourbon balls, Russian tea cakes and, of course, “ginger cookies.” Her moist, russet-colored gingerbread cookies were based on a beautifully minimalist recipe, one that calls for a modest amount of flavoring agents, like molasses and cinnamon, another form of Midwestern self-denial. Most important, though, the recipe did not call for a set amount of flour. Instead, the directions just said to “alternate buttermilk + flour till a soft dough to roll.”
In the span of one short generation, however, Mimi Miller’s flowing, open-ended recipe had hardened into a set rule over the amount of flour. In her own handwritten recipe for Ginger Cookies, Monna Kuykendall, my grandmother, directed all bakers to sift the dry ingredients “with about 8 cups flour, enough to roll out to cut.” My mother, Kay Billingsley, and my older sister dutifully followed the eight-cup directive in their own recipes, even as they omitted, ignored or changed other steps and ingredients. (My mom’s icing, for instance, called for blending butter, not whipping three reserved egg whites, which she arbitrarily decided belonged in the cookie dough instead.)
Let me tell you something about trying to incorporate eight cups of flour into this dough: After a certain point, it’s like trying to roll out a hardened lump of potting clay with a toothpick. I suddenly realized why my family hated making these cookies. This was weight training, not baking. The fascinating part about this blizzard of flour is that the resulting gingerbread cookies are still delicious when topped with icing, which helps sweeten the slightly bitter, molasses-rich dough that’s short one whole cup of sugar compared with the original cookies. My main problem with these flour hogs is that they turn to rocks within 48 hours.
This recipe mutation, I realized, needed to stop before Mimi Miller’s original gingerbread cookies ultimately morphed into frosted paperweights. The proper course of action, it seemed, was to go back to the source recipe, as an homage to my great-grandmother, the baker, the one who injected flavor and sweetness into the holidays through many generations. I followed her recipe exactly, save for one thing: I ditched the pink icing, which, according to family lore, became a tradition when there wasn’t enough red food coloring on hand.
The time had come to correct this longstanding early-20th-century (and probably apocryphal) pantry deficit. Could we not spare a few more drops of food coloring? Mimi Miller’s legacy, after all, deserved to be preserved in deep, vibrant shades of red and green. I mentioned this to Deborah, and she wholeheartedly agreed. She even asked me to bring some gingerbread cookies to our younger sister’s wedding later this month. They will be the gift of something old.