BY VALERIE BELDEN WILDER I Philmont, NY I Wednesday, 21 December 2016
When I was growing up, my sisters and I waited with bated breath every December for the arrival of Aunt Jan’s Christmas cookies.
Sometimes, my childish heart would despair, thinking this might be the year she would forget us, five little girls growing up in New York, far away from our grandmother and all our aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in Utah and Idaho.
But she never did. Every year we would come home from school one day in December and there it would be on the kitchen table, The Package. The cookies were always securely packed in big coffee cans, with Aunt Jan’s careful touch. She made the same things, year after year: snow white divinity, milk chocolaty fudge, crunchy peanut brittle, and my two favorites: pretty date pinwheels and cakelike peanut cookies.
My dad, Jan’s brother, would squirrel the package away so we wouldn’t devour it all in one day. Every once in awhile he would bring it out and let us have a treat or two, and this ensured there were still some left to enjoy on Christmas Eve.
That night, we always had a program which included saying prayers, singing Christmas carols, and reading the Christmas story from the Bible (Luke 2) which seemed to take forever. (I was surprised, as an adult, when I started this tradition with my own boys, to see how short it actually is!) Then, we were each allowed to open one present and have some treats.
Heaven, when I could get one of the coveted peanut cookies.
I have many other memories of Aunt Jan and Uncle Ed, too.
Sometimes, in the summer, we would drive cross country from New York to Utah, in a crowded Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning. How we ever made it, I’ll never know.
I have vague and fuzzy memories of eating sandwiches at rest stops, the bread drying quickly in the warm wind, buying little wooden animals or polished rocks at souvenir shops, and lounging on a mattress in back of the car. All there was to do was sleep or read or stare out the window at cornfield after cornfield after cornfield.
After these hot and tiring journeys, we would arrive at Jan and Ed’s house, luxurious, in the foothills of Bountiful, a suburb of Salt Lake. We kids all thought they were rich, and maybe they were.
Their house was very different than ours. It was a ranch constructed of sloppy mortar brick, with white carpet in the living room, delicately painted china and figurines on display, and floor-to-ceiling curtains in the bedrooms. They had a shady back patio bordered by a short brick wall with rosebushes, and a small and tidy back yard.
Their basement, where we usually stayed, was cool and dark, mysterious and comfortable. Uncle Ed had a built-in bar, which fascinated us, with rows of liquor bottles and sparkling glasses hanging up high, and there was always a bowl of nuts with a nutcracker on the coffee table.
In the morning, Aunt Jan liked to sleep in, because she stayed up late to see Uncle Ed when he came home from work. But before she went to bed, she would put out everything for us to have a good breakfast. They had a tiny TV in the kitchen and an ironing board which folded down from a wall cabinet, and I thought this was amazing.
I remember writing in my little journal about their luxury car, with its vinyl top and tiny windows on the sides, in the back. It was very different from our station wagon and somehow felt like riding in a fairy coach, whisking us around in enviable style.
Aunt Jan and Uncle Ed had no children together, so they would spoil us. Aunt Jan would always take us to Lagoon, an amusement park, and let us ride all day. Then, and THEN, she would take us to the mall for new clothes, a completely new outfit of shirt and stylish jeans. Oh, happiness!
Eventually, in 1992, after I was graduated from college, Aunt Jan died, losing her long battle with cancer. I always remembered her peanut cookies fondly, but figured the recipe died with her. So you can imagine how excited I was to be rifling through my mother’s recipe box a few years ago and find that Aunt Bonnie, Jan’s sister, had written it down and given it to my mom!
I made the cookies for the first time a few weeks ago, and they tasted just like I remembered from years ago! The recipe is very inexact, though, so I’m still working on it and can’t share it with you yet. (It calls for butter the size of an egg, says the eggs should be cooked in a double-boiler mixture, and doesn’t even tell how many minutes to bake it!)
The cookies are difficult to frost and to get the peanuts to stick. My sister and I’ve been researching other recipes for cookies with the same name, but they’re very different from Jan’s recipe. This one will be in progress for awhile, I suppose…
But the important thing is this: Aunt Jan cared enough to always remember us. God bless her for making our childhood Christmases a little brighter. I can’t imagine how far in advance she must have had to start to get all the cookies baked and mailed in time. And she worked full-time, too.
Just yesterday, I sent a goodie package to Thing 1, containing three things: Chewy Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookies, Celestial Chocolate Chippers, and Jo McCall’s Toffee. Somehow, though, I also longed to send him Peanut Cookies…
Aunt Jan was also a talented seamstress. When I was digging around in the barn apartment (same episode where I found the fabulous orange and yellow curtains!) I found this suit, miraculously unscathed by little critters. When I asked my mom about it, she told me Aunt Jan made it for her.
I thought, “Oh, that can’t be true. There’s a tag in the skirt.” But upon closer inspection, I found the tag simply said “front”.
Isn’t it pretty?