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Chocolate Chip Cookies and Red Cowboy Boots

My grandma isn’t your typical floral housecoat-wearing, quilt-sewing, rolling-pin waving sort of grandma. When she’s not driving herself to Monday morning Tai Chi class, she’s lunching with friends while wearing hip-hugging jeans most likely purchased at Target and, if she’s feeling really spry, red cowboy boots. Even after 89 years, my grandma has style–especially when it comes to shoes. It’s a fetish she and I share, even if she prefers these days to scuttle around in sensible sneakers, seeing as her balance isn’t what it once was. Not that this keeps her from going shopping for outlandish heels–and then returning them a few days later. She can’t actually wear them. She just likes to think she can.

The other passion we share, something she has yet to lose and I have yet to master, is her knack for baking chocolate chip cookies. I recall her avocado-green stand mixer resting on her kitchen counter. I would watch, mesmerized, as the enchanted bowl seemingly turned on its own while the beater twirled like a dervish inside. At the time, I thought my grandma to be magic incarnate, that she’d cast some sort of kitchen spell. Occasionally she’d jab her wand—okay, spatula–into the bowl, scraping the cookie dough from the sides and pushing it into the dancer’s path.

Each time I’d visit, which was often, there would be cookies. I’d sit at her kitchen table, a plate of them before me, while she watched her afternoon “stories” on TV. And each Christmas Eve before bed, the kids would scrawl notes to Santa and leave them by our grandparents’ shimmery-tinsel-covered tree alongside a heaping stack of her cookies. (I’ll never forget the year I woke up Christmas morning to find a Barbie Dream House waiting for me. Throughout the rest of my believing years, I was convinced that this present was a message from Santa, his way of saying, “Those cookies rock!”)

When I think of my grandma, I always picture her making those cookies. They, and she, are as much a part of my childhood memories as my Raggedy Ann doll and roller skates. Not to have them would be like erasing the chalk hopscotch squares I etched on my driveway as a kid.

I never outgrew her cookies, just as my grandma never outgrew making them for me. Her cookies have always been there for me when I needed them most, like when I’d graduated from college and moved across the country. They just appeared my doorstep one day in a brown paper grocery bag wrapped around a Sears sweater box and shackled in miles of transparent adhesive tape. I had to literally hack through the layers with a knife, but eventually I unearthed a heaping mound of cookies protected by plastic wrap and foil. Taped to the top was a handwritten card that read, “If you want us to come get you with a U-haul, we will. Love, Gramma.”

My Grandma’s cookies still come out of the oven exactly the same as they did when I was a kid–crunchy at the edges, chewy in the center, with hills of milk chocolate chips and golden doughy valleys coursing through them. As the only granddaughter, I’ve always felt compelled to figure out her secret, which is actually no secret at all. It’s not as if the recipe has been handed down from relatives who arrived on the Mayflower. Nor does it call for a rare ingredient harvested from the fields of Shangri-La or plucked from an exotic tree in a country whose name I cannot pronounce. It’s printed in mass quantities on the back of the Nestle Toll House bag. Though born from a simple and ubiquitous recipe, her cookies are somehow special and, like her, have a flair all her own. Sort of like those red cowboy boots.

I first asked my grandma “How do you get them so perfect each time?”as a teenager, my mouth crammed full of chocolate-chip cookie number three while I battled with my brother and cousin for the last one on the plate. She laughed her familiar toothy, three-part laugh, the same laugh I’ve heard my entire life. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said proudly, shrugging her shoulders. “I just do.”

I’m still asking her that question. To date, I’ve baked thousands and thousands of cookies–or so it feels–yet not one has rivaled hers. So, like a radio show listener, I call in for advice after each botched batch. Our conversations tend to go something like this.

“What about the butter?” I ask her. “Do you think I’m softening it too much?

“Did you use butter or butter-flavored shortening?” she asks.

“Uh…the recipe calls for real butter, Grandma,” I respond, hoping the what-the-hell face I’m making out of confusion–and, who are we kidding, mild frustration–can’t be detected over the phone.

“Ah ha! Well, that’s it then,” she says in a tone that makes me think she really wants to say “Of course you use Crisco, dummy!” even though she’d never, ever call me that. “I always use butter-flavored Crisco,” she adds.

Though frustrated by the omission of this important substitution, I refrain from pointing out that she once told me she follows the steps of the original Toll House recipe  “exactly.” And this is not exactly.

“Ok,” I say. “I’ll try the Crisco.”

Butter-flavored Crisco,” she insists.

I cringe. Then I try it. Actually, the Crisco cookies look more like hers. Taste more like hers, too. But they still aren’t hers.

“Did you put the flour in a little bit at a time after you creamed the butter and sugar?” my grandma asks during our next call.

“Yes, I did that.”

“Well, maybe it’s your mixer,” she says.

I remind her that I’d purchased a mixer, one just like hers, years earlier when I first embarked on my cookie quest. It has the same removable beaters that I like to lick clean, just as I did when I was a little girl in her kitchen.

A few weeks later I inquire about her cookie sheet.

“Oh, I’ve had my cookie sheet for 20 years. That’s not the issue,” she says.  “But how many cookies do you put on it at a time?”

“Twelve,” I respond.

“You should only put on nine, ” she said, relinquishing yet another never-before-heard spoonful of wisdom. “Don’t crowd the cookies.” Pause. “Unless you’re in a hurry.”

Sigh.

My aunt Jan has been on a similar quest to recreate these cookies. A doting daughter, she’s lived most of her life within a few miles of my grandmother. I, on the other hand, have been separated from my grandma’s kitchen by states or continents since I was 25, thus left to do my own cookie detective work. I suspect Jan’s benefitted from a little extra cookie coaching over the years. Betty Crocker versus Nancy Drew.

“Honestly, I don’t care who masters the recipe,” I told my aunt a while ago, sitting in her kitchen and watching her fold chocolate chips into her cookie dough. “We just need to make sure someone does.” She nodded in agreement, handing me the spoon to lick. Neither of us said what we were actually thinking–that this really isn’t about the cookies. What we’ve really been seeking by measuring and stirring all these years is some way to lessen the inescapable grief that will suffocate us when my grandmother is no longer with us.

I’m banking on the notion that when she’s gone, these cookies–her cookies–will lead me to memories of her. Memories of the two of us squeezed together in the EZ chair having warm cookies and milk while reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Memories of the soft touch of her hands in my hair as she formed the double braids I was so fond of as a child. Without an exact replica of these cookies, something I can cling to when she’s gone, I’m afraid my memories will be forgotten. That I’ll one day forget her.

My family gathered at my aunt’s house this past Thanksgiving, a rare reunion given that we’re all spread thin across time zones and responsibilities. After dinner, my aunt nonchalantly placed a platter of perfectly lumpy cookies, gooey with melted chocolate chips, in the center of the table. If I hadn’t known where they came from, I would’ve guessed they were my grandma’s.

Greedy hands emptied the plate in record time. My eyes locked with those of my aunt, who I could tell was silently asking what I thought. I bit into a cookie. It tasted exactly like my grandma’s.

My grandma tried one, too. Then she patted my aunt’s arm. “Well, I guess you don’t need me anymore,” she said quietly, looking down at her lap.

I went to where my grandma was seated and kneeled in front of her. She placed her hands on my cheeks and smiled down at me, her hands smelling of Lubriderm lotion–a scent that, like baking cookies, reminds me only of her. In that moment, I understood that these cookies weren’t just important ingredients in my memory. They also mark decades of birthdays and housewarmings, graduations and holidays, for her as well. “I need you, grandma.”

Practice has brought me closer to perfecting her recipe, though I still feign helpless granddaughter from time to time, calling to ask her exactly how she does it. This, even though I’m of an age where I’m beginning to understand the lure of sensible shoes.

“Do you use pure vanilla extract or vanilla flavoring?” I ask.

She knows I already know the answer. But she explains patiently anyway.

“Oh, only real, pure extract,” she says. “It costs a little more, but it’s worth it.”

It seems neither of us is ready to let go just yet.

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