Monday, March 31, 2014

What do cookies have to do with funerals?

"The lowly cookie, tantalizing the taste buds of successive generations, re-presents a life well lived in love, vanished from our eyes, yet still present in the memory of the heart."

I do not enjoy attending funerals. And yet, I frequently come away from a funeral feeling peaceful and uplifted, in a subdued sort of way.  A well-celebrated funeral puts me in touch with humanity, and reminds me that each life has a transcendent meaning. 

As a funeral I recently attended illustrates, the transcendent meaning of a person’s life might be uncovered in something seemingly trivial, like cookies.

Cookies re-present a life well lived in love
On the back page of the memorial card for this funeral, there was a recipe for ginger snaps. During the eulogy, we learned that this was not the standard recipe for the cookie. The daughter of the deceased told us that one time her mother added too much flour resulting in a snappier cookie. Since she liked the cookies that way, she continued to make them with extra flour, and the cookies became a family favorite. As her daughter spoke about her mother’s love for her family, which, in typical Italian fashion, often manifested itself in platters of food at family gatherings, I could picture multiple generations of her family enjoying the crunchy cookie.

Usually memorial cards end up in my blue box, but the one from this funeral found its way into my black binder of recipes.  I have already made these cookies, and I must say, they are the best ginger snaps ever. Who knows, maybe this recipe will one day be inducted into my family’s cookie hall of fame, joining another cookie recipe – my mother-in-law’s famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. 

For two generations, before she passed away a number of years ago, my mother-in-law made copious batches of her signature cookie.  When her six sons were growing up, she would make 12 dozen cookies at a time, and on one occasion, two of her sons polished off almost the entire 12 dozen as the cookies cooled on the counter while their mother was out. While her grandchildren were slightly more restrained, they, too, relished her chocolate chip cookies, as I am certain her great grandchildren will in the years to come.

Ginger Snaps and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Of course, cookies can never sum up the complexity of a person’s life, but they may point to a person who lived and loved well. The legacy of the unique crunch of a ginger snap, and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies cooling on a counter trigger memory, and make the person, whose love continues to surround us beyond the grave, present to us once again. The lowly cookie, tantalizing the taste buds of successive generations, re-presents a life well lived in love, vanished from our eyes, yet still present in the memory of the heart.

We do not go to enough funerals
Cookies and funerals remind us that our lives are greater than our physical presence in the here and now. We are relational beings, and our life impacts others long after we are gone. The impact we make on our family, friends and community is very much evident at a funeral in the eulogy, in the readings and prayers, and in the tears that freely flow.  It is there, too, in the reception that follows, where the sharing of cookies and other foods symbolically recalls the loving hospitality and generosity of the deceased.

We do not go to enough funerals. Indeed, funerals seem to have fallen out of fashion, with many people opting out of traditional funeral services, or any kind of communal service at all.  In my view, this is unfortunate because apart from helping us through the process of loss, funerals give us a glimpse of the totality of human life from birth to death and beyond.  In the life of the deceased, we recognize the basic ingredients of all human life, although we each have our own unique recipe for living. 

The recipes:
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies:
(I reduce the sugar, and often omit the nuts)
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup quick cooking rolled oats
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Cream shortening, sugars and vanilla. Beat in egg and 1 tablespoon water. Sift together flour, soda and salt; add to creamed mixture, blending well. Stir in the oats, chips and nuts. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake at 375 for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from pan. Makes 3 1/2 dozen to 4 dozen. (I never get four dozen - guess I make them too big).

Ginger Snap Cookies
(Again, I reduced the sugar)
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs
approximately 4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar; add molasses. Beat in eggs. Mix flour, baking soda and spices in a separate bowl, and add to creamed mixture. Cool in refrigerator for at least one hour. Roll into 1" balls then flatten with a small glass dipped in sugar. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes.

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