Not much specific genealogy in this post, but as it relates to traditions and family origins in general, I hope sharing it will be accepted in the spirit of the season.
I'm joining some of my husband's cousins today for a "cookie swap". This a more modern approach to the old days when our mothers and grandmothers baked for weeks in advance of the holiday, as we try to adapt and still keep the best old traditions alive for the next generation.
So, each of us made 14 dozen of ONE kind of cookie, and will come home with as many different kinds to offer guests or give as gifts. The guys in the meantime, are heading out for a "cookie shoot" and will join us later for a potluck supper. My teenage son is very excited about the whole deal. He WANTS to come today, won't blow off this family event to just hang out with his friends. That says something in itself, no?
We were asked to be ready to share something about the Christmas memories around our cookies. Family historian that I am, got me to thinking how families passed along their traditions and with them, perhaps some clues to their culture.
(You can find dozens of recipes via Google, with little variation. Very simple recipe, easy to make for even beginning cooks.)
These cookies stand out among my earliest memories helping my mother baking Christmas cookies. You use cream of tartar instead of baking powder as in regular sugar cookie. That ingredient a historical marker, so a really old recipe.
We girls liked rolling up the little balls of dough in our hands, and dipping them in a bowl of cinnamon and sugar. They melt down quickly in a hot oven into perfect circles, as long as you leave enough space for that. Too close, they will end up running together, like chocolate chip cookies do.
When they bake,they puff up, but then crinkle on top when they cool. This time mine came out a bit crisper, and are good to dip into tea or milk. If you can resist overcooking, which means they still look sort of raw when you take them out, you get a chewier center. Those batches usually get eaten right off the rack, which reward is still the best part of making cookies.
I tried to find the historical origin of the recipe today on Google, though it seems nobody really knows. They are said to be most common from about our area of the Mid Atlantic, north to New England.
Various sources seem to agree that cookie making itself really wasn't all that common until the later 1800s when commercial baking ingredients became widely available. (Though perhaps just not commonly found in print?) I also found out that in olden days they made ammonia from the horns of deer that could be used to make dough rise. Same source was used to get gelatin for jams and jellies.
Some writers say snickerdoodles started here in the Mid Atlantic, because of all the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch. Others say really just German or Dutch or even English of New England, which region was prone to using funny nonsense names. Snickerdoodles could be kin then to Yankee Doodle, see?
My mother's people trace back to Dutch and Germans (our Geigers/Kigers of Alsace, which region I read in a gourmet cooking magazine once, the only one in what is now France, with a Christmas cookie tradition). Other sources suggest New England, which all sort of mix up very early in my own blood lines here in Salem County anyway. So how the tradition started in general is anybody's guess.
I know the recipe is in my mother's old Joy of Cooking cookbook, that was probably her mother's book before her, published I think in the 1930s. I have it now (cover long gone) and every so often will go back and find old time recipes in there, though you better know what you're doing, as they don't explain much.
Salem county has been home to my people for something like 300 years now, so distinct cultural origins of the ancestors are so long mixed as to be indistinguishable at this late a date, rather like these cookies I made.
By comparison, in my husband's family, all who came over much later, you can still seperate out the recipes of the Polish side from the Irish. And yet we get to select from the best of each to pass down to our children. Our potluck contribution, by popular demand, will be his recipe for Kielbasi and beans. Uses traditional Polish sausage with an American barbecue flavored twist, so even in just our own time, we're making new traditions by a selective process.
Perhaps it is just that ready ability to mix, traditions old and new, that makes our family or area unique. Flavors and smells from the kitchen seem to be at heart of most memories so what feels the most like "home". In any case, it's making the time as well as the cookies we share that matters. Hope you all get to do the same.
Happy Holidays to my Salem County cousins (even the ones I can't trace yet).