A very long time ago I gave about fifteen dozen homemade Christmas cookies to my then boyfriend’s mother. She had two trees (very grand to me) and Christmas trinkets graciously placed around her home. But she didn’t bake. I didn’t know people who bought their Christmas baking but Audrey did.
She said thank you so much in her lovely Irish accent and put the box of cookies on an uneven stack of dishes on the top shelf on of a kitchen cupboard while telling a funny story about a car she once drove. The box immediately fell out – six feet down. Still telling the story, she picked up the broken cookies, put them back in the box (along with Kate the dog’s hair) and back onto the same shelf. It was the beginning of knowing Audrey, a woman well worth the sacrifice of fifteen dozen homemade cookies.
Christmas cookies are a lot of work. They’re rolled, cut, decorated, and carefully baked. They’re a kind of art. When they’re not perfect, like this year’s brown sugar shortbread, I have to wait a full twelve months to make good again. It’s this way sometimes. When you only do them once a year, you can stumble. This year’s brown sugar shortbread are not dog cookies or anything, but I won’t be taking them to a party either.
Long after augmenting Audrey’s Christmas baking, I settled on five Christmas cookies that I made my own. They would never make Pinterest. Too plain. They are in the tradition of mid-century Canadian mothers – all butter, modest or no trimmings. In case you want to make one yours, they are: my mother’s Brown Sugar Shortbread; Boulter’s White Sugar Shortbread; Sugar Cookies (not available); Toasted Nut Balls (a mishmash of recipes); The Joy of Cooking’s Ginger Snaps.
These five cookies helped out my Christmas budget for a few years. I’d package them up in pretty boxes with red curly paper and pieces of evergreen, then I’d deliver the orders so my clients could give the gift of homemade without putting on an apron. I never knew who ate them. All I knew was that they had some of the best.
I was careful, so careful. I measured meticulously and cut or rolled each cookie perfectly. I knew, as I still know, that the detail in every step is what makes those cookies so good. I understood that going into production, as friends would suggest, would mean loosing the detail. To make it financially viable, I would have to streamline and streamlining, by definition, means less detail.
Even though I was making my cookies to pay for my Christmas, I never properly considered markup. I sort of thought of the cost of ingredients, labour, and delivery, but costing out the heart was impossible. It meant valuing my talent. I didn’t see that I would do what others didn’t or couldn’t. I didn’t see that worth. I get why artists hire agents, editors, gallery reps, or brokers. Those people understand the maker’s brain and for that they deserve their commission.
I think about pricing every time I meet someone who has gone into the food business. They have so many decisions to make to keep their product true. Many have figured out how to balance finance and product to satisfy themselves, though they may never be rich in cash. Their wealth is something else. You’ll find those people selling at a farmers’ market or from their own farm gate where they have control over what matters to them. Their food can be sublime and a reason to look under the marketing radar.
Baking for a six-week living is long over for me, though I make the same cookies for friends and family. But sometime back in September of this year I decided I wouldn’t be making all five kinds, just the two shortbreads and the sugar cookies. The decision wasn’t without reflection; my passion had faded so this was the right thing to do. I am less careful now and the cookies, while still extraordinary, are not perfect. I have lost my desire to make them so.
My mother’s Christmas baking traditions waned, too. She didn’t need to be the maker anymore. She was content to be the mentor and, while still able, passed on the how-to to my daughter. She makes the brown sugar shortbreads and has my mum’s cutters.
Since handmade has a piece of the maker’s heart, its a good thing the heart is as expansive as it is. We make, we give, we receive, we make, we give, we receive. Especially at Christmas. And sometimes the person we make for is an Audrey and our lives are richer for the exchange.