I have spent over 45 years in search of the perfect oatmeal cookie, one that tastes like the cookies my German grandmother used to make. Am I searching for the cookie or my grandmother’s love?
I clutch a cookie as big as my fist, the spicy sweetness almost overwhelming. It is an oatmeal cookie studded with chocolate chips, raisins, walnuts. There is a spice almost indescribably wonderful – cloves, I learn many decades late – wafting from every bite. The cookie is thick, moist, chewy, and absolutely delectable.
My grandmother sent the cookies home with my dad that Sunday afternoon. Every weekend, my dad checked in on his widowed mother. On Friday evenings once a month, he handled her banking. On Sundays, he stopped by to visit or drop off my brothers to mow her lawn. Her electric lawnmower cord was patched in dozens of places with duct tape. My brother Joe had a habit of running over the cord with the mower as he pushed it through the thick zoysia grass in her postage-stamp-sized Bellerose front lawn.
Grandma was a short, wiry woman with thick, wavy silver and iron streaked-hair. She could crush you with one hug, her arms astonishingly strong from a lifetime of scrubbing floors, wringing laundry, and hauling heavy pots from her stove. She had the square jaw so prominent in my father’s side of the family and dark blue eyes, so much like my own. The skin on her face was soft, like chamois, wrinkled and creased from years of squinting into the sun and laughing at bawdy jokes.
Her English remained poor until the day she died. She often spoke in German with my father, privately sharing her thoughts while encouraging me in her broken English to play with some of the toys she kept for her grandchildren in the back room where she did her sewing. I’d sneak past them while they conversed in the kitchen, and steal butterscotch candies from the dish on her end table in the living room.
Once, I mimicked some of the German I’d heard on one of those Sunday afternoons. My father paused, and without elaboration, said, “Please don’t repeat those words again.”
“Your grandmother is…a bit salty,” was all he’d say, and I since learned that the words I’d picked up on were some choice bits of German slang from her rough and tumble childhood.
Grandma came to America with her sisters Marie and Augusta in the 1920s. She came from the port of Bremen, and her life in Germany on a tenant farm near the Black Forest was hard. “You needed a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread” was a phrase I often heard her say when asked about her youth, a phrase which I only understood in high school after I learned what inflation was and how it contributed to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. It was no longer just a history lesson to me after that. I could connect the dots from my history book to my family story with the image of a hungry woman trundling along, pushing a wheelbarrow heaped high with worthless money to buy day-old bread.
She rarely spoke of the old country, as she called it. She preferred living in the here and now, to loving the people around her and caring for what was hers. She grew tomatoes, and apples, and pears in the garden my father had dug for her as a Mother’s Day present in 1941. My mother made applesauce from the hard apples that were as tough as my grandmother.
I knew that coming to America was an enormous step for her as a young girl. She had her sisters to rely upon, however, and she remained close to them throughout their lives. They entered the United States through Ellis Island and moved to the Bronx, where they quickly met other German immigrants and married soon after.
I know nothing of my great grandmother, her mother, or the women who came before them, except for one thing: they were exceptional bakers.
Tante Marie, my grandmother’s sister, made extraordinary cakes. Lemon cake, with lemon sugar spun icing, and apple strudel drizzled with white glaze. Everything she cooked was perfection.
My grandmother’s kitchen always smelled of flour, salt, sugar, and yeast, with an undertone of molasses and cloves. Cardamon, cloves, and caraway seeds were the holy trinity of the kitchen. Dough rose in rough ceramic bowls on the counter, and the heavy cast iron frying pan doubled as a donut frier on days when it wasn’t sizzling bacon for breakfast.
Sometimes, my father returned from visiting his mother with a paper sack filled with sinkas. Sinkas were donuts, so named because they were ‘sinkers’ or so heavy they sunk to the bottom of your stomach. I never found them heavy; they were like my favorite Italian treat, zeppoles, which we bought by the bag at some of the street festivals nearby.
Each sinka began as a rounded ball of dough dropped into an enormous kettle filled with boiling lard. Timed by prayer, each Hail Mary said approximately 30 seconds, the fried dough was scooped out with a flat-bottom ladle and rolled on paper to rid it of the excess grease. Then, the doughnut would be sprinkled with cinnamon, cloves, and powdered sugar.
But my favorite treat of all from grandmother’s kitchen was her oatmeal cookies. My mother made oatmeal cookies, but they tasted flat, lifeless. My grandmother’s cookies…there are no words sufficient for the symphony of taste and texture each cookie contained.
Every bite held a surprise, a morsel of rich, dense dark chocolate, the sweet, moist mouthful of raisin, or the heady scent of cloves.
My grandmother never wrote down her recipes. We begged her, my sisters and I, to write down the sinka recipe, the oatmeal cookie recipe, and many others.
“A good cook,” she once told me, many years after she stopped cooking and had moved into an apartment in my uncle’s house, “Keeps recipes here.” And she tapped her temple to emphasize her words.
Not me. I have binders of recipes. Some copied from library books, others printed from the internet. Every recipe has notes on it – calories (something my grandmother thought were ridiculous), proportions, everything.
Cookies are a favorite, and I have a special binder devoted solely to cookie recipes. My mother’s recipes for thumbprint and brown sugar chews. My favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.
It may seem surprising that to someone who longs for the perfect oatmeal cookie that I have no recipes for oatmeal cookies in my collection. That’s because I’ve given up ever trying to find that perfect recipe worthy of my grandmother’s kitchen.
No amount of tinkering with ingredients, spices, or proportions yields that perfect blend of salt and sweet, crunch and chew like my grandmother’s cookies. It’s as if she had some magic, some ingredient known only to her that she sprinkled like mana onto everything she baked.
It was a point of pride for cooks in my grandmother’s day to remember every recipe. But the problem with recalling recipes from memory is that, like the oatmeal cookie recipe, it can be lost to time.
My grandmother had no daughters to pass her recipe on to, just sons. She refused to write down the recipes. And so they passed on with her, only the memory left of one sweet Sunday afternoon and a sharp, spicy, chock full of nuts cookie clutched in my grubby fish.
Is the taste of an oatmeal cookie the same at age 3 as it is at 33 or 43? Do spices taste sharper to tastebuds undimmed by time? Are cookies bigger because a child’s fist is smaller?
I have inherited many gifts from the women in my family, both on my father’s side and my mother’s side. But the gifts from my father’s side of the family are gifts of home and hearth. My grandmother’s love of gardening inspired me to dig deep and plant my own apple and pear trees. And her absolute genius in the kitchen inspired me to learn how to cook when I was a newlywed and suddenly realized I couldn’t live on fast food forever.
My grandmother sold her home in Bellerose when I was a girl, and moved to Maryland to live with my aunt and uncle. I was heartbroken when she died. I pull out her photos. I can still feel the strength of her hug, the silky polyester of her dress, the scent of lavender powder.
I have been on a quest for a perfect oatmeal cookie, a cookie to rival the taste of my grandmother’s cookie, for over 45 years. I have yet to find it.
Commercial oatmeal cookies taste flat, machine made. Homemade cookies tend to taste sugary. Experimenting in my own kitchen, I came close, once, with the discovery of cloves and bits of chocolate as the secret ingredient. Cloves are the closest taste I have ever found to transport me to her clean, worn old kitchen with its peeling linoleum and yellow, bright walls.
But I have yet to completely recreate that bite of heaven, that sharp zing and warm hug found in her cookies.