I was 5 years old. I was with my friends, loitering behind the Baptist church. We sat on the concrete retaining wall overlooking the creek bed. We were practicing our spitting.
Mark Anderson arrived in a rush, rosy-cheeked, struggling to catch his breath. He held a cookie tin in his hands.
“I got’em,” Mark said.
Mark opened the tin and distributed the precious contraband. We knew he’d risked his life to smuggle this delicacy across the frontlines of his mother’s kitchen.
They were orangish strips, seasoned with cayenne. I took one bite and my world exploded.
It was like looking directly into a leafblower. The entire universe opened in a singular moment of spiritual oneness. All of a sudden, the work of Brahms, Webern, and Bartók immediately made sense. Suddenly I understood 19th century French poetry. All at once I grasped the transitory nature of existence, although, technically, I was still at an age where I peed the bed.
“What are these?” a newcomer asked with a mouthful.
“These,” said Mark sagely, “are my mom’s cheese straws.”
If you’ve never had cheese straws, I hope you get some this Christmas. They will blow your hair back. Imagine a crumbly, savory, buttery, floury concoction, baked with enough cheddar to turn your bowels into stone.
Mark Anderson’s mother delivered her cheese straws to our doorstep every Christmas season. Her straws would inspire fistfights within my household.
No sooner would her biscuit tin arrive than my old man would confiscate the container like a purse snatcher. My mother would cut him off at the backdoor, threatening to alter his anatomy with a melon baller.
One year my mother actually tried making cheese straws, but it was a disaster. Her straws came out like briquettes of Kingsford charcoal, only with less flavor. Because as it turns out, cheese straws are fragile things to prepare. Almost like a fine soufflé, or a batch of pâte à choux. They require decades of practice.
Of course, I’m not saying my mother isn’t a great baker. My mother is one of the most acclaimed kitchenologists of her time. There are certain holiday-specific foods my mother is internationally noted for. Such as homemade toffee, pecan brittle, Christmas crack, and of course, caramel popcorn balls.
Oh. Popcorn balls. Sweet merciful Lord. My mother’s caramel popcorn balls are the size of regulation dodgeballs and sweet enough to break your larynx. In 1981, a crack team of university researchers conducted a state-funded study which concluded that the number one factor responsible for America’s type-two diabetes epidemic was my mother’s popcorn balls.
Every year my mother would bring popcorn balls to our church Christmas party. They were her flagship dish. They were so famous that people stood in line for hours simply so Mama would autograph their Bibles.
Those were happier times. Those Christmas parties were the highlight of our community calendar, and I miss them dearly. In a way, they were glorified culinary contests for fundamentalists.
Each able-bodied church lady prepared her finest foods in cornflower-blue Corningware dishes and, with all humility, tried sincerely to slaughter her opponents.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these weren’t pious women. They were sweet elderly females who volunteered in the nursery and could sing the baritone parts to any Gaither song. But when it came to cooking…
These women were UFC cage fighters.
These staunch females with their thick nylons, mountainous hair, and cat-eye glasses became bloodthirsty rivals at Christmas. And you didn’t mess with them, either. Because these were also women who could gut catfish, defeather poultry, and brain young men who said, “No thanks, I don’t like onions.
One time we had a preacher who came from Pennsylvania, he knew nothing of our cultural etiquette. During one Christmas party he was sampling food from tables and I’ll never forget what he said to Miss Anne Schulz. He said, “Hmmm. This deviled egg could use a LOT more salt.”
Then he salted it.
The room fell silent. People quit laughing. The piano quit playing “Deck the Halls.” And somewhere in the distance a baby cried.
The preacher’s eyes got big. The Pennsylvanian obviously knew he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what. The poor guy looked like a frog just before it encounters a lawnmower.
Later that night, 16 elderly altos visited the parking lot, rolled their sleeves, and used their combined strength to push the preacher’s Plymouth into the river.
While we’re on the subject, I also miss the taste of white-chocolate pretzels, homemade gingerbread, barbecue-sauce cocktail weenies, cheese logs, peppermint bark, Aunt Eulah’s Episcopalian eggnog. And of course, I miss pepper jelly served over a brick of room-temp cream cheese.
When did young people quit eating pepper jelly? And why?
These were benchmarks of childhood. I’ve found that the older I get, the quicker these holiday traditions are disappearing. I’m not saying this makes me sad, because I know life must move forward. I realize that young people must form their own beautiful traditions.
Still, no matter what age I am, whenever I need to remember a world that was slower, less technological, less angry, less fearful, and less infected, less divided, I close my eyes and I bring it back.
I think of a place that was full of simple people, sweeter songs, unapologetic cholesterol abusers, old women in pearls, and all the beautifully handwritten letters people used to send. A time when yellow traffic lights meant slow down, not speed up. An era when kids weren’t hesitant to wave at strangers.
Wherever you are this Christmas, I wish you love. I wish for peace among your family. But most of all, I wish that you could try Mark Anderson’s mom’s cheese straws.