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.