February 26, 2011
I just mixed up another batch of Great Grandma Daisy Butcher’s molasses cookies. This is one of my favorite chores at work, lately. I’ve always made these cookies for my oldest brother at Christmas—they’re his favorite—but only started making them for the diner this winter. They’ve been a hit. It seems like all I have to do is say, “Grandma Daisy Butcher’s molasses cookies,” and people are clamoring to have one. I like to think that would please her.
I never knew her—I was only two when she died—but she’s famous in the family. For these cookies, and for—staunchness, I think. That’s the sense I have. She was small, thin, and quiet. If she was anything like her brother Lee (I did know him) she was thin to the point of gauntness and quiet to the point of silence. Not unfriendly. Just—quiet.
She was a good, plain cook (my mother’s words), she made good bread, she always served huge sugar and molasses cookies to company, and she loved baseball. Her husband Frank died of pneumonia when their children—Onolee, Arlean, and Frank, Jr.—were fourteen, twelve, and six. Daisy ran a boarding house then to help pay the bills. That’s how my grandmother, Arlean, met my grandfather—he was working on the road crew putting the Dixie Highway in, and taking his meals at Daisy’s.
I relay a question about Daisy through my sister to my nearly-deaf mother over the phone: “Would you say Daisy was a no-nonsense sort of person?”
Mom says, emphatically, “Yes.”
“And she was stubborn, like you, right?” Mariann asks with a grin in her voice.
“Well, yes, that too,” Mom says, completely matter-of-fact.
I’d called an hour or so before and asked what Grandma Daisy was like. When I called back for their report, Mariann told me that Mom had been talking and talking about Daisy, but as for what she was like—not much to say. “I do know this,” Mariann says. “If she didn’t like you, well—she just didn’t like you.”
I laugh. I’m thinking I’d have liked Daisy Butcher. I’m hoping she would’ve liked me.
My sister remembers that when she was growing up, Grandma Daisy had a tiny little rocking chair in her living room. “A child’s rocking chair?” I ask, confused.
“No. A little grandma-sized chair,” Mariann says tenderly. I think that Daisy must’ve done—or been—something special to be so well-remembered, but Mariann tells me later that while she liked going to Daisy’s just fine, it was mostly the cookies and the fascination of that miniature chair.
That’s almost all I know about Daisy. I know she helped her daughters with their own children when they needed it, saving the day in my grandma’s case. Arlean had a nervous breakdown—postpartum depression, maybe—something which was not done (or rather, not admitted) by rural farm women in the 1940s. My mom has talked to me—a little— about this before. Daisy could not understand Arlean’s depression and had no patience with it. Mom didn’t understand it either—she was only twelve—and I suspect this is partly why she adored her steadfast, prosaic grandmother so.
“What did you like best about her?” Mariann asks on my behalf.
Mom says in a tone that tell me she’s getting a little weary of all these questions, the answers to which are so self-evident, “Well, we just got along.”
So that’s that.
Mom took down the molasses cookie recipe by following Daisy around the kitchen, because of course Daisy never wrote anything down.
Warm Together: 1 Cup sugar (½ white, ½ brown),1 Cup lard , and1 Cup molasses. Then add one beaten egg. Mix 1 ¼ tsp baking soda with hot water or coffee, then add. Sift: 4 Cups flour (if batter isn’t stiff enough, add more) with 1 tsp ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp cloves , and ½ tsp allspice. Stir into other ingredients. Roll out and Cut. Put on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes.
I use butter instead of lard. I soften the butter just so it slopes, doesn’t melt, then mix in the sugar, molasses, and egg (without pre-beating it). Then I add all the dry ingredients, spices and baking soda included, and then the coffee (I never use hot water, always tepid leftover coffee). I also add some ground espresso. I don’t know how much because I don’t write anything down any more than Daisy did. A bit. Not quite a single shot’s worth, maybe. I don’t know how much coffee I (or Daisy) use either. Some. A good-sized sploosh or two. Enough so that the batter is right: solid, but not dry. Damp, but not wet. I chill the batter overnight, then make patties in my hands instead of rolling the dough. I dip each cookie in buttermilk and then sugar, which gives it a faux glaze with a little crunch when it’s done. I use parchment paper instead of a greased cookie pan.
Other than that—I do just like Grandma Daisy did.
So that’s how things change, and how they stay the same.