Eating Christmas

Grandma's Contraband Christmas Cookies

Once again this year, Chow Bella writers are gnawing on the holidays -- in the form of stories of Christmas and food. Hope you have some Alka-Seltzer handy. Enjoy.

When my mother and father divorced in 1990, lots of things changed, but not Christmas. Christmas was divided up before the split, and it stayed that way after. My brother and I spent Christmas Eve with my mother and her family, Christmas Day with my father and his.

Food-wise, it was no comparison. Dad's family had great dishes, sure, but Christmas Eve dinner at the Quinns' was incredible. Smoked ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans with bacon. Sometimes, Grandma would shake things up and serve Mexican food of the Den-Mex variety, dishes picked up from her childhood in Colorado, a blend of New Mexican and Tex-Mex traditions. Lots of cheese; lots of cream. As distracting as Santa on the Doppler radar and the mountain of presents under the tree were, the dinner table held my attention.

See also: 50 Awesome Gifts for the Food and Drink Lover

And then there were her cookies:

Some Good Housekeeping or Betty Crocker recipe clip she'd had for years, modified and perfected over decades. It's a simple sugar cookie, a thin one with a spread of frosting, the precise ration of crunch and crumble mastered. There are sprinkles, adjusted for the appropriate holiday: pastels at Easter, red-white-and-blue for Independence Day, and of course red and green for Christmas. Call me crazy, but the Christmas sprinkles have always tasted the best.

These cookies convert people: my uncle's girlfriends, mom's work friends, visiting pals. Some days, I think I'd like to know how they're made, but mostly I don't. I prefer the magic of them, the mystery. I like that there's only one place to get them.

The cookies stayed the same, but the Christmas arrangement changed some when my dad remarried. It didn't take him long: By 1993, Christmas on the Woodbury side included another little brother and a sister. In the interest of fairness, it was decided that the presents given at my mom's stayed there when my dad came to pick us up. It was a bummer, sure. What good was having a Batman (styled after Michael Keaton, the best Batman) at dad's, and a Batwing (Batman's ace airplane) at Mom's?

No one ever really lives two lives. Sometimes they try, but inevitably they drag traces of the one into the other. Think Batman/Bruce Wayne, Catwoman/Selina Kyle in Batman Returns. Things between my mother and father were not good. When Dad came to pick us up, he knocked on the door and was not invited in. It was understood, that if at all possible, direct contact between Mom and Dad was to be avoided.

But the cookies. No matter how badly things had soured between my mom and dad, I had covert orders to discreetly sneak a few cookies out to him, wrapped in a red cocktail napkin with poinsettias on it, shoved deep into my jacket pocket. We laugh about it now -- the intervening years have found my mom and dad establishing a true friendship -- but in those days, I took such comfort in those contraband cookies. They were a secret, from Grandma, from Mom, from my stepmother. Like my brother and me, they were shuffled between two worlds, elements of a shared past not easily discarded.

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.