A Christmas Cookie Caper

How a sacred family recipe ended up with an unauthorized "sort of" family member.


   There was a thief in my family. A low-down, sneaky thief. A bandit without morals with zero regard for loyalty. This family member had stolen something so precious, so irreplaceable, that things were about to get real, 1970s-style (which is kind of like Gangnam Style, but in Earth Shoes).

   The thief in question was Susan. She wasn’t even blood kin. The girl had married a second cousin, (maybe third) once removed, and this sort of family member had run off with my Great-Aunt Shirley’s recipe book.

   Oh, don’t poo-poo the recipe book. Shirley had no children of her own. She didn’t need them because her kids were her recipes. She could cook like no other and bake like an angel working a Viking range for Jesus. She was also very protective of her recipes. She shared them with no one — not a family member, not her Bible-study besties or even her pastor.

   Whenever you would ask her for a recipe, she would smirk and croak out in a Southern drawl that was made frog-like from her couple-of-packs-a-day-unfiltered-Camel habit: “You can find out when I die.”

   Now, as a kid in elementary school, hearing that was downright creepy. I was a little afraid of her. I think all the kids were, and I’m certain that if it weren’t for her cooking, we probably would have never wanted to see her. The holy grail of her recipe repertoire was a sugar cookie. Yep, a simple sugar cookie that was so sublime two of my cousins got in fight that drew blood over who would get the last one. (While they were fighting, I ate it.)

   The thing that made the sugar cookie worthy of a throwdown was that it was an enigma. The sugar cookie can easily go south. It can be too sweet, too puffy, too plain, too flat or too crisp. Most people see the sugar cookie as just a conduit for icing or sprinkles. But Shirley’s cookie was the rare breed. It was perfection. Putting icing on it would be like painting over the Mona Lisa: the crime of the century.

   For years, family members debated what the secret ingredient was in the recipe. Some thought it was lime juice, others cream of tartar and then there was the seriously misguided camp that thought Shirley mixed in some vegetable shortening to the butter component.

  Whatever it was, every single woman in the family wanted that recipe — badly. In 1977, they thought they would finally get it. Shirley died, and the talk at the funeral wasn’t about how they’d miss the old lady. It was about when the family would get the recipe book. Shirley told everyone that her recipes were stored in a safe deposit box at the bank.

   She lied.

   After all the will rigmarole was sorted out, no one could locate the recipe book. Until Christmas 1978, when Susan, a woman my grandmother said didn’t know how to spell oven much less turn one on, showed up to a family holiday function, with — you guessed it — the world’s best sugar cookie.

   Hell hath no fury like a band of women, all tipsy on gin and tonics, dressed in un-ironic ugly Christmas sweaters, who have been recipe-robbed.

   At first, I didn’t know what was going on. I was too busy stuffing my face with cookies. It wasn’t until I went into the kitchen to get some milk that I discovered some mighty harsh accusations were being whispered about Susan.

   The kitchen clique was all 100 percent certain Susan was a recipe rustler. I remember my mother being the most ticked off. “How can a woman who pours Cheez Whiz over Fritos and calls it a King Ranch casserole suddenly make the exact duplicate of Aunt Shirley’s sugar cookie?”

   Her sister joined in by proclaiming like an Evangelical preacher getting testy about a Bible-verse interpretation: “Does she or does she not bring store-bought to every family reunion?”

   There was a rowdy round of agreement and then from the mouth of babes —which would be me, in case you were confused — came the question: “So how do you think she got the recipe book, and what are you going to do about it?

   My mother shot me a look that said, “I hope you weren’t aiming for sassy, because that’s what I’m hearing, young lady” and I’m certain she would have scolded me, but my aunt piped in with a “Yeah, how did she get it?”   

   After an hour of conjecture and conspiracy theories, my mother — who devoured mystery novels at such a rapid pace that our local librarian called her Evelyn Wood (a teacher who coined the phrase “speed reading” and started a successful Reading Dynamic business) — devised a plan. The best part was it involved me. I was thanking my lucky stars I had walked into the kitchen when I did.

   My grandma and mom, the brains of the operation, had theorized that Susan had never set out to steal the recipe book but had stumbled upon it. Because Susan wasn’t “really family,” she had been assigned the task of staying at the deceased’s home the day of her funeral and standing guard over all the aluminum-foil-wrapped food offerings for the after-funeral meet and greet. They both thought that as Susan was digging around in the kitchen for Saran Wrap, or booze, more likely, she found the book and kept it for her own nefarious needs.

   All of this made sense to my young mind because I never understood why you would keep a recipe book in a bank vault. Wouldn’t it be a huge hassle to go back and forth to the bank every time you wanted to cook something? Of course Shirley would have kept the book in her kitchen. Duh.

   The big issue was where was Susan hiding it now and how to get it back. Some of the women thought that the book was, for sure, in Susan’s double-wide. (Yes, Susan and my cousin lived in a trailer, but it was on a bunch of acreage so according to my grandma they were a “little uppity” about being land-rich.) But my mom had another thought. She was sure Susan had the recipe book on her.

   “Think about it,” my mom said. “If she’s bold enough to bring those cookies to a family party and just rub our face in it that she knows the recipe, then I would bet dollars to doughnuts that she’s got the book on her.”

   This is where it gets fun, at least for me. I was assigned the very Nancy Drew-ish task of rummaging through Susan’s large handbag. My aunt was going to spill a drink on Susan and haul her off to the bathroom to help in drying her clothes off while I got the purse and went through it. The thought was, a kid getting caught being nosey is more acceptable than an adult being seen pawing through another woman’s personal belongings.

   It took me approximately 10 seconds to find the recipe book, which was sharing space in the cavernous bag with — you guessed it — a Bible. I grabbed it and ran like the wind to my mother, who then team swaggered walked with my grandma into the bathroom brandishing the book. They both gave Susan an earful. It got so loud in there that the men were complaining they couldn’t hear the Cowboys game.

   After buckets of tears from Susan and a prayer, all was fake forgiven. And by that I mean everyone pretended it was “all good.” But for years, if anyone thought you were doing something sneaky, they would say, “Don’t go pulling a Susan” or “This family doesn’t need another Susan.”

   As for the recipe book, everyone got to pick his or her favorite one and write it down. The sugar cookie recipe, as agreed upon via a unanimous vote, was shared with everyone.

   I’d love to give you a holiday shout out and tell you the secret behind the world’s best cookie, but on that fateful day, the family had to swear a solemn oath that we would all follow our Great-Aunt Shirley’s lead and take the recipe with us to the grave. It’s not that I’m big on following pledges made when I was a mere child, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my multiple decades, I don’t ever want to take even the smallest of chances of ticking off the women in my family.