My Family

Braiding Traditions

No – I’m not talking hair.

I’ve been lying in bed, wide awake, for the past hour or so, with cookies dancing in my head. Springerle, baurenhutchen, mandelsterne, white lebkuchen, and pfeffernusse, to name a few. (And I may have some of them spelled wrong, I know.)

These were some of the traditional German (mainly) cookies that Bill’s mom made every year before Christmas. She send packages to Bill’s brother in Seattle and his family, and to her brother in Ohio. I believe the rest stayed at her house and were offered to us when we stopped by, and on Christmas Eve and Christmas night. Everyone has their favorite.

One year I hung out with her and experienced the making of some of them. We made the springerle – hard, anise-flavored pressed cookies that need to age a bit before they are eaten. We used her springerle molds – some newer, composites of wood and resin, and some old – one small piece of wood with 6 hand-carved pictures…I don’t even know how she came to possess that one – was it her mother’s? I don’t know. But it’s old, and alive, and priceless. We also made the mandelsterne (I’ve also seen it spelled “manstelsterne“) – which translates to “almond stars,” and these are Bill’s favorites. They’re like meringues, actually, and the egg white dough is sticky and somewhat difficult to work with. But the cookies are well worth the effort. Light, crispy and chewy, with ground nuts throughout….

Bill’s mom passed away very suddenly nearly a year ago. The day before Thanksgiving. And I don’t want to talk about it because okay here I am sitting here with tears running down my face because you know what? I miss her. I was so, so lucky to have a mother-in-law who I clicked with on a bunch of levels. And I wish I’d known her longer.

And I’m going to abruptly drag the conversatino back to the cookies, because my intent this morning was not to sit here weeping. I’ll do that another time. Soon. Because I really want to write about her. You should have known Elsa.

Anyway. Bill’s brothers and sisters-in-law decided that I should inherit the cookie-making supplies. There were frantic searches through the little recipe boxes on top of her fridge for the recipes. Ray finally found them in another room, in a small, black ring binder…the recipes translated from the German in Elsa’s handwriting.

I made most of them last year and got them shipped out on time. I was nervous, I remember. I found it hard to get started. I suddenly felt like I had this HUGE task ahead of me, and I was both determined to get the cookies made correctly and terrified that I’d f*** them up.

I know. They’re cookies, Jayne. Cookies.

But they’re not. They are tradition. They are more than flour and sugar and eggs and nuts. They are a common history. They are family. They are memories. They are home.

And so now I am the keeper of the cookie tradition.

Which suits me fine. I am a big believer in and keeper of traditions.

And so, back to where I started…lying in bed thinking of cookies…I’ll be making the springerl this week, or next weekend, at the latest. They can age for a couple of weeks, then I’ll make all the others and ship them out.

We’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, too. I volunteered (begged) both moms last year and they had agreed, though I practically had to provide references to my own mother to get her to allow me to cook the turkey… (Hi Mom 🙂 ). In past years we would have the first Thanksgiving meal around 1:00 at Elsa’s house, sit around groaning in full-bellied agony for a while after that, then Bill and I would stuff ourselves into our car and drive to my mother’s house and do it all over again with my side of the family. And I mean “all over again.” The funny thing was that, with a couple of side dish exceptions, both moms made the same meal. Well – what I really mean is that both mothers made the same stuffing. And the stuffing (INSIDE THE TURKEY, not in a casserole dish on the side) is my absolute favorite part of the meal. So the first Thanksgiving I ever spent at Elsa’s house was like home for me.

(Long and rambling post this morning, huh?)

But anyway – traditions. So – the stuffing will not deviate from the simple bread stuffing that both moms have made for years. I don’t care what new trendy stuffing any of my cooking magazines wave at me. I will not make a change. I can’t. I could probably give up the turkey before I could give up the stuffing. (Though I’d need the turkey to cook the stuffing in…)

So, again, back to lying in bed thinking…the braiding image came to me. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m braiding traditions. The traditions from Bill’s family, traditions from mine, and the new traditions that we create for this little family of ours.

I love this. I don’t know if it’s pregnancy hormones or not – probably not – but I’m welling up again. This is exactly where I am supposed to be. My life is perfect.

And now I have to run – Bill is up, Alex is awake and babbling happily in his crib, and we have a ton of grocery shopping to do…..

Have a good day.

4 thoughts on “Braiding Traditions

  1. I <3 lebkuchen... I spent 6 years in Germany as a child and those particular holiday cookies were my favourite. I there is any chance of mail ordering some let me know ;)

  2. Jayne-This is my first year for Thanksgiving. Tom’s sister has a two year old and a brand new baby boy (born Thursday), George and Gloria are coming up from Virginia and we are hosting everyone in our teeny, tiny house. I know what you mean about braiding traditions- there are many times when I think about my own families traditions (primarily Irish) and interweaving Tom’s families holiday customs. Although I consider Poland, Russia and the Ukraine to be very similar and close in proximity, the customs are VERY specific to each region. My children are so blessed to grow up learning about all sides of their family- to have babka and pierogies as well as their Irish names! So, this Thanksgiving, we will bring something from our table to be blessed on the altar at church, thereby blessing our entire extended family at our meal. I intend to bring something from my own childhood (maybe one of my grandmothers salt and pepper shakers?) in order to braid our own new traditions. Happy Thanksgiving, Jayne!

  3. (Finally getting back to this…)

    Seuss – I can’t ship you cookies (sorry!), at least not in the near future, but I can offer the recipe – they’re pretty easy. I’ll be posting it this week when I have more than five free minutes to type.

    Beth – EVERYONE everyone? Including your whole side of the family too? Wow – mine is a tiny little thing, then, by comparison. And is each person bringing something to be blessed? That’s really cool. We should compare stories after…

    Sheila – Thank you.
    TITLE: Traditions
    BLOG NAME: Sheila Astray’s Redheaded Ramblings
    DATE: 11/20/2003 11:02:22 AM
    I have been remiss in not pointing to the following post sooner. It is called “Braiding Traditions” by Jayne, the Barefoot Kitchen Witch. It’s not just a run-of-the-mill post. It is an essay. It starts with Jayne, lying in bed…

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