Monday, December 16, 2013

On grief and cookies

On July 26, 2013 my grandmother, Laura Lanzillotto Gatto, died. It was the Feast of St. Anne. It was not unexpected, but was nonetheless devastating. My mom later told me that when she called to tell me, I "couldn't form a complete sentence." I'm not sure I was trying to. What is there to say?

Instead, I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time. When I hung up the phone with my mother, I walked to the kitchen and took 1 1/2 sticks of butter out of the fridge to soften. Not until they were on the counter did I call my husband, or start to cry. It may have been the first time I ever remembered to take the butter out to soften.

My grandmother's most famous recipe, the food she was best known for, were her biscuits. (That's bis-coots, accent on the second syllable. The vowel sound is closer to that in look than in loot.) Both the name and the recipe are derived from biscotti, but we never called them that, and they are, truly, a completely different cookie.

I'm fairly certain that I got my first job out of grad school due to my education, experience, relevant skill set, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that the interviewer had once had Grandma's biscuits at a bake sale.

No one has ever been able to replicate Grandma's biscuits exactly, despite sustained efforts. We've been trying for years. She didn't bake from a recipe, so every recipe she wrote down was slightly different from the last, and you always had to cross your fingers and hope that this index card was going to be the index card that got everything right. Grandma was known to look at a biscuit recipe in her own handwriting and ask, incredulous, "Where did you get this? I never would have told you to put [so much butter, so little butter, so much flour, etc.]!" My cousin has come really close to replicating Grandma's biscuits, and I had a couple of good batches in high school that got everyone's hopes up before my luck wore off. My husband irritated me by coming closer with his biscuits than I ever do with mine, despite the fact that we work from the same recipe card and I share Grandma's genes. My mom's are good, but they're not the same. 

I had not planned to bake that Friday, of course. I had the day off, but was hoping to research at the NYC Municipal Archives. My major worry was that I couldn't find my research notebook. What ended up mattering, instead, was that I didn't have enough sugar or flour, but I'd already begun creaming enough butter to make a full batch. So I improvised. I put in as much sugar as I had in the pantry, and stopped there. I substituted whole wheat flour for what was missing of the white. This was not an effort to replicate Grandma's cookies. This was a desperate attempt, a clawing at the air, to capture whatever I could of her essence, her routine, her personality, her legacy. My biscuits tasted fine, but they were nothing like Grandma's.

Baking may have been an irrational response to my grandmother's death, but I was not unique in crying into my cookie dough. The night after my grandmother died, my cousin - the cousin who comes so close with her biscuits - began baking.  She made multiple batches, each one tweaked slightly. She had taste testers. She took notes. She was determined to get them right. She came a lot closer than I did.

And yet, my grandmother had told me where her recipe came from. She took her mother's recipe, and her mother-in-law's recipe, and changed them to suit her taste. She removed the lard from one, substituting butter so they would be healthier. She eliminated the yeast, preferring the rise she got from baking powder. In some sense, I think that the pursuit of the perfect biscuit is the pursuit of a fiction, something that doesn't exist - or that, at the very least, is a moving target. Even Grandma's were not necessarily the same from one batch to another. She'd improvise if she ran out of ingredients. She sometimes added cinnamon. Grandma didn't inherit a finished, perfected biscuit recipe, so why should we expect her to leave us one? Maybe the tweaking, the changing, the improvising is as much a part of the legacy as the taste of the perfect cookie.

But even knowing that didn't make it any easier when, on the night after the funeral, I waited until everyone else had gone to bed, took from my mom's cookie jar what I knew would be my very last of Grandma's biscuits, and savored it through my tears.

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