Cheese Balls and Christmas Cookies.
It’s the holiday season, and with that comes holiday food. Some of the childhood memories most precious to me involve holiday food, in particular the dishes my Momma slaved away to create for us each year. One of those, oddly enough, is the humble cheese ball. And of course, Christmas cookies.
Momma worked 3 jobs at Christmas just so she could buy us extra presents to put under the tree. She had her regular job with Henrico County in Richmond – the Bulky Waste Department. That used to crack me up, my mother worked for the bulky waste department, snicker snicker. Then just after Thanksgiving she would go work second shift at Ukrop’s grocery in their bakery, icing cakes and making doughnuts I supposed. I was never sure exactly what she did only that she came home very late, looking tired.
Her third job was painting pocketbooks. In the late 70’s the preppy look was in and so were those wooden handle Pappagallo purses. The body of the purse was cloth and the handles were made of wood and clacked together when you closed it. The purse body was interchangeable – all you had to do was unbutton it and slip on a new cover. You could have Kelly green to match your espadrilles or red for Christmas, or yellow to match your Izod shirt.
She painted things on the purses to sell at a boutique in the chi-chi West End of Richmond – The Picket Fence. Things like lady bugs and sunflowers, and I remember helping her paint a frog holding a slice of watermelon. Navy blue purse, green frog, red watermelon. The frog was holding up the watermelon slice as if he was Hamlet examining that skull of his friend. Mom would stencil the design, paint it in, and later some preppy lady who lunches would buy it for way too much money.
By working 3 jobs she ensured my sister and I would trot down the stairs on Christmas morning to find the Toys ‘R Us store underneath our tree. During the year we went without, but at Christmas it was sensory overload – so many toys you didn’t know where to look first. We’d snap our heads around like birds wondering which shiny object to pick up.
And even though she iced cakes for others, Mom used to go insane with holiday food as well. I remember waking up at 3am – whenever I wake up in the middle of the night I never look at a clock, it just seems to be 3am to me. Anyway, I would hear her downstairs, cooking, baking, stirring. Smells of gingerbread, sharp, warm, a tangy smell would waft up the stairs – probably what woke me up in the first place. The clanking and clanging of baking sheets being scraped across oven racks. The whirr of the blender blending butter and sugar into a creamy mess. Soft curses being uttered every so often.
Once I slumped down the stairs to tell her to quiet down because the noise was keeping me awake. Yeah, I was a spoiled little shit. But what I found stopped me in my tracks. The dining room and kitchen were a shambles. In my mind it was the middle of the night and so the house must be quiet and empty, every teacup in its place, the table wiped, counters clean, room dark. But here it was bright as day and every surface was either covered in flour or dusted in sugar. Chairs were askew. There were platters and baking sheets on every surface. And everywhere you looked – cookies! Cheese! Food everywhere! My little girl mind was floored. Cookies? Can I have one?
We lived in a 1960’s split-level, so our kitchen and dining room weren’t connected, but there was a long “pass through”. You could sit in the dining room and watch people cooking in the kitchen and hand off any dishes that needed to be put on the table.
Except on this night if you attempted to sit and watch you’d either have your hind end covered in batter or you’d be run over by the tornado that was my mother. It was as if she’d taken 5 Vivarin – she was moving so fast it was a blur. I stood there wiping sleep out of my eyes and watched. One minute she was rolling out homemade gingerbread and painstakingly cutting them into men-shapes and giving them eyes and shirt buttons with tiny red-hots, and the next minute she was mixing 4 kinds of cheese and spices for her special homemade cheese balls. No Hickory Farms for this chick, all her stuff was homemade. And to this day I can’t eat a cheese ball. ‘Cause it won’t taste nearly as good as my Momma’s.
In my mind’s eye I see myself hiding on the stair, enveloping myself in the sight before me. The heat coming from the oven is inviting as are the smells of cheddar, Worcestershire sauce, and the warm zing of gingerbread. I want to sneak a cookie really badly but don’t dare. Every cookie is accounted for.
She always made at least 8-10 different kinds, maybe 6 dozen of each? How many cookies is that? Buttery Russian teacakes, gingerbread men, Yo-Yo’s. What are Yo-Yo’s? Two cookies filled with apricot jam to resemble a yo-yo, and very yummy. My favorite? The peanut butter and chocolate cookies. I don’t think they had a special name. Just “Those yummy Hershey kiss thangs you make every year Nan!” Peanut butter dough wrapped around a Hershey kiss, rolled in powdered sugar. Holy crap are they good! I bit into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup cookie at Barnes & Noble once, and I was transported to 1973. Almost as good, but not quite. Something about biting into a melty Hershey kiss while powdered sugar poofs on your shirt and peanut buttery goodness get all mixed into the equation is just indescribable.
She’d make all of these cookies – not one of them from a box or easy to assemble – then present them as gifts in a tree-shaped glass cookie jar. Each cookie hand-selected and put in the jar and tied with a ribbon. So meticulous and “just so”. But why? Who was all this effort for? You know kids don’t know the difference, that roll of Pillsbury dough from the refrigerator case tastes just as good as long as chocolate is involved.
Lately I wonder more and more what all that extra effort was for. What was she trying to prove? Or was she just creating memories? She certainly created one for me. Every Christmas when I attempt to recreate even a small portion of what she did, I remember. But see, I also remember her being tired all of the time. Every minute of the day she was tired. When I needed to talk, she was too tired. So this is a memory too. Makes you think some.
This year I’m attempting her Russian teacakes. As I stood last night covered in powdered sugar, pulling yet another cookie sheet out of the oven and burning my wrist, I actually looked to the sky and yelled, “How in the hell did you do this every year?” And I swear I could hear her giggling. Good-naturedly of course, but giggling. But also ready to envelope me in a flour-caked hug, comforting away my need to prove anything to anybody. I love you Momma.