All it took was a plunge of my hands into the mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, and pecans, and I was instantly standing in my grandmother’s big old colonial kitchen, 400-something miles and 40-something years from the here and now. I could see everything: her silver-and-white kitchen table that sat smack in the center of the room, the breakfast nook to the right where I used to hang out with my friends and play canasta, and ahead, the sink with the window overlooking the driveway. She stood next to me, wearing a house dress, as they called them in those days (Grandma never wore pants), one of her pretty flower-patterned aprons tied around her waist, and pointed to her pinkie finger to show me the proper size to form the dough for her pecan crescent cookies.
My mind hopped then to rolling out pie crust into a “baby” pie dish while Grandma, again standing next to me, guided me, her hands with their gnarled knuckles over mine as I battled the giant rolling pin. I still have that baby pie dish. I use it at least once a week to heat vegetables, but I hadn’t thought about making those tiny apple pies in a long, long time.
How could that one sensory experience – the feeling of that dough squishing between my fingers – trigger all those memories, instantly, when I couldn’t remember whether I’d taken my vitamins ten minutes earlier? All I can figure is that emotional experiences, good and bad, must be coded in our brains differently than what goes on the rest of the time. There must be a chemical reaction to certain experiences that causes the brain to transport those sensations, those memories, to a special section, like a warehouse. I picture a big walled-off section of my brain with a flashing neon sign: Leah’s Special Memories.
I wonder if the warehouse is organized, if the memories are sorted and categorized, liked I'd be tempted to do. A “machine” as complex as the brain would have to have some sort of system, wouldn’t it? I wonder then, is it organized by year (e.g., birth to age 4), or by good and bad, or maybe love and hate? Are these memories literally stored by group, or scattered randomly through the warehouse but “tagged” for easy access? Or maybe, in the case of bad memories, they’re tagged to stay hidden.
The human brain fascinates me. Not only does it serve as the body’s “computer chip,” collecting and sending probably a gazillion messages and instructions throughout our bodies, simultaneously, every second – Heart: pump, pump, pump! Lungs: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale! – but it’s the receptacle for our consciousness…our souls.
I’ve been blogging for the past several months about the mind, how it reacts to different things (like a full moon, like sleep states), but of all the games our minds play on us, this function where it connects a sensory element to a memory is, to me, the most powerful. I don’t know how the brain does it, but I think any organic system that can so easily transport itself to a place and time from the past, that can reconnect us with loved ones, at least on a sensory level, is magic. I can’t help but give thanks for the universe that is our brains, and while I’m at it, thanks to my grandma for teaching me how to bake pecan crescent cookies.
So, in honor of my grandma, I’m taking a page out of Elvy Howard’s blog and sharing that recipe.
|My grandma's pecan crescent cookies, in my "baby" pie dish.|
Pecan Crescent Cookies
(Makes about 3 dozen, depending on the width of your finger.)
- 2 cups shortening (Grandma used 1 cup of Crisco, 1 cup of butter. I don’t even know if you can buy Crisco these days. I use butter or margarine.)
- 2/3 cup white granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3-1/3 cups flour
- 1-1/3 cups finely chopped pecans (If the pieces are too large, it’s harder to form the crescent shape.)
Thoroughly mix all ingredients – and don’t be afraid to dig your hands in and get messy. Everything should be well blended.
Separate the dough in half and form into two “logs.” Wrap the logs in waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator at least a couple hours (I leave overnight).
To form cookies, cut slices of the chilled dough and roll in your hands until about the size of your pinkie. Bend into a slight crescent shape.
Place cookies about 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 ° about 15 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. (The bigger the cookies, the longer it takes. J)
Set the cookies (still on the sheet) aside to cool for a few minutes. Until they set, they fall apart easily.
Combine sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, mix thoroughly. I start with about a quarter to a third of a cup of sugar and add cinnamon to taste. If you run out, you can always make more.
While the cookies are still warm, but after they have firmed up a little (about 5 minutes or so), roll each cookie in the sugar/cinnamon mixture (careful handling still required!), then place on some waxed paper (or paper towel) in single layer to finish cooling.
These are probably one of the few cookies I’ve ever made that taste better after they’ve cooled, so you might want to wait before sampling. And while you’re enjoying that first cooled cookie, I hope you can bring to mind one of your own treasured memories.
Wishing all a joyous holiday season – Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Winter Solstice and Kwanzaa blessings!
Leah writes stories of romance and suspense, and the enduring power of love. Her latest story, Christmas Dance, explores the mysteries of love, marriage and parenthood.
Visit Leah at www.leahstjames.com.