A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, I was craving molasses. Like many others, I sure had time to bake.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates started it. When his narrator Hiram in the novel The Water Dancer bites into gingerbread made by a generous Philadelphia baker, the taste releases memories and hints of the special power Hiram called “conduction.” The distinct flavor sent him back to his slave childhood when another baker had stealthily handed him two ginger snaps fresh from the master’s oven. “Family got to watch out for each other,” she told him.
Molasses and my family go way back too, from the paper cartons of Crosby’s Molasses on my Aunt Mary’s table in New Brunswick, Canada, to the glass jars on my mother’s shelf in Rome, New York. There, my mother added molasses and ginger to a soft cookie dough that filled my tummy and soul.
I have no idea what recipe she used, and have lost a recipe card for Joe Frogger cookies sweetened only with molasses and doused with rum. Multiple web recipes for baked goods with molasses contain too much white and brown sugar and too much fuss. I prefer my molasses straight, and right now, easy is best.
Maybe my mother’s old cookbook would satisfy. Her now coverless spiral-bound 1939 cookbook came free for buyers of wood cook stoves manufactured by the Wrought Iron Range Company of St. Louis from the late 1800’s through 1945. Our stove took up a third of our farmhouse kitchen, a cardboard box stacked with wood always nearby on the floor.
Those stoves revolutionized the lives of home cooks, then mostly women. Yes, they still had to heat with wood, but the cook stoves had ovens and burners. Cooks no longer had to prepare meals from the hearth.
Before the recipes section, nine pages described the stove’s mechanics, and three more pages, addressed to “housekeepers,” detailed the importance of vitamins. Maybe surprising, but the relationship between vitamin deficiency and certain diseases was a fairly new concept of modern nutritional science.
Good health through eating was also on the company’s minds: “This book will teach you the value of correct eating, how to do the most with materials on hand, how to make economy a pleasure and how to keep pace with the times.” These words could almost be taken from a cooking blog in April 2020 amidst stay-at-home orders, the cash-strapped unemployed, and emptied flour shelves.
Finally, the section on recipes: soups first, followed by vegetables and meats, then baking, and canning last. After a few minutes of carefully lifting the browned pages of cakes and cookies recipes, “Dixie Molasses Wafers” on page 94 stood out. Six ingredients, and all in my possession. Halving the recipe, I boiled a half cup of molasses and watched with wonder as the 1-1/2 teaspoons of baking soda I added erupted like a science project volcano. Stirring in butter, flour, ginger, and salt, I kneaded and rolled out the dark brown dough.
Only then did I realize the recipe provided no oven temperature, just “moderate,” and no cooking time for the cut-out dough to be placed onto “greased tins.” I guessed that moderate was 350 and set the timer for 10 minutes.
As the cookies baked, I devoured more pages, wondering if the lemon meringue pie photo on page 80 was the recipe my mother used, so happy to see her handwritten recipes here and there, like the one for date bread she jotted down on page 67 in the salad section. Even better were the stains on the pages from spilled vanilla and oil. I am so my mother’s daughter.
Pulling the evenly baked round disks out of the oven and cooling them on my mother’s metal racks, I found the intense aroma daunting. Would these be so healthy and pure they weren’t edible? I congratulated myself on the wafer’s snap. These were definitely made for dunking.
Dipping half a cookie into a small glass of milk, I was brought back to the simplicity of eating foods with so few ingredients that it is almost possible to taste each flavor coming together as one. I remembered my Canadian cousins stirring tablespoons of molasses into their milk. I saw my Aunt Mary standing near her own wood cook stove. And I recalled the molasses crinkles baked in the kitchen of my new best friend after we moved to the city in 1959, leaving our cook stove behind.
In these strange COVID-19 pandemic days, with rising deaths of loved ones and strangers, we seek any solace we can. It is a comfort to be able to reach for these serious tasting treats stored in a plastic container and to feel pages that my mother touched. When this batch is gone, I will bake some more.
Image: “Molasses cookies” by Andrew Malone, licensed under CC 2.0.