There are some days that make you all too aware that you are alive in the present, and others that remind you constantly that everything you know about life is shaped by the experiences of your past. My weekend was kind of like that.
For one, I connected with my dead grandmother through the mystical seance of baking. My Oma, dead now for close to 20 years, was a great baker. Homemade bread with butter and honey can make me feel like I’m 8 years old again, standing in her mint green, sunny, farmhouse kitchen. At Christmas I have resurrected a couple of her recipes, most importantly her molasses cookies and Ranger cookies. No one ever got the correct or true recipe for the molasses cookies, but I think I’ve done a fair job of re-creation. The Ranger Cookies I have heretically updated with the addition of chocolate chips and my kids love ’em that way. One recipe, though, I had never been brave enough to try because of its alleged difficulty and the vagueness of her directions – the faded, handwritten directions for Leb Cookies.
Leb Cookies are not to be confused with Lebkuchen. Lebkuchen is a traditional German honey spice cookie. Leb Cookies, as far as I know, are a German cookie confined to the Texas Hill Country and are made with pecans. You will find almost no references to them in local German cook books and even fewer people make them. I’d be willing to bet that my attempt this weekend was one of only one hundred for a fifty mile radius. Basically, they are a mixture of butter, shortening, sugar and pecans, cooked till they caramelize slightly, then a heaping seven cups of flour and leavening mixed in while the syrup is still warm, and then stirred until you think your arm is going to fall off. The warm dough is spread in a big pan, cooled overnight, then sliced thin and baked. Let me just say, my family and I will be eating more than 9 dozen of my only marginally successful attempts to recreate this tricky recipe. But the real success of the recipe was that I thought my Oma would be so pleased that someone remembered her and the happy memories made in her kitchen.
My second, but more important nostalgic event, was on Saturday, December 13th – the Feast of Saint Herman of Alaska – the first canonized American saint of the Orthodox Church in America. And, it was 16 years ago to the day that I was chrismated Orthodox. I can still remember it so vividly. It was exciting, awkward, overwhelming and underwhelming all at the same time. I am just glad I was received by chrismation and not baptism. I felt strange enough standing barefooted in church; a baptism in the Holy Horse Trough (literally, but it looks nicer with a white skirt around it) would have been totally strange. (And cold. No matter how many buckets of water they heat up on the stove, the water coming from the outside tap in December is cold.) If the details of my memory seem a little mundane, the whole significance of what I did 16 years ago isn’t lost on me. I can never go to church on St. Herman’s Feast without tearing up because I am so happy and grateful to God for bringing me into his Holy Church. Becoming an Orthodox Christian remains the single most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Like most important things in life, it all boils down to the significance of one single event, and everything I’ve done since has been affected by that decision. That decision has become the nostalgic nexus of my life and has put my nostalgia for cookies, traditions, family memories into a bigger perspective.