The Critical American Issue of the Day
This issue is not, as many would have you believe, whether or not the Constitution is a “living document” (It will be a living document on the day that it breaks out of its case and takes the current Supreme Court out for a drink, a toke, a smoke, and a poke — assuming Justice Ginsberg stays home.), but is centered instead on the much more important and utterly American question: “Just what is the finest chocolate chip cookie in the known universe?”
One night in the Hood River Hotel in Hood River, Oregon on the banks of the Columbia, I had a chance to examine that question again just before the cataleptic sugar shock of nine home-made chocolate chip cookies knocked me sideways for eight hours like a poleaxed pound puppy.
When this coma finally released me, I thought more deeply on the question of the Holy Cookie and what makes for greatness. I would have liked to hand the baker of the cookies that conked me the laurels but I cannot.
I shall explain the nature of my judgment, the history behind it, and also, should you choose to stay with me, provide you and you alone with the recipe for, “the finest chocolate chip cookie in the known universe.”
First of all, anything that can be purchased in a supermarket is not fit to be called a cookie, much less a chocolate chip cookie, no matter how thick the BS on the package may be. Especially any with the word “artisan” on the package which must be incinerated in situ. We’re all agreed on that, right? Right.
Second, do not be fooled by “boutique” chocolate chip cookies. They are all from Satan’s Workshop and are, therefore, instruments of the Enemy who is out to weaken the intellectual and moral fiber of America. Consumption of these cookies leads, inevitably to “a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness [and] loss of essence.” You may, in a moment of weakness after, say, a friendly strip search at the air port, find that you cannot “avoid” these cookies, but under no circumstances are you to give them your essence.
Eat Not the Cookie of Satan
Yes, ever since Mrs. Fields rightly determined that her days of getting on the covers of the Adam and Eve and Victoria’s Secret catalogues were over and she went into the sidewalk-blower bakery business, these evil simulacra of chocolate chip cookies have spread over the American landscape like the Eighth Plague of Egypt. The results are murder, insanity, death and an obesity so monumental that the victims do not so much walk our streets as teeter through them — a threat to passersby, lost pets and unreinforced brick structures.
Do not, I repeat, consume boutique chocolate chip cookies. Pass by these scented and seductive venues of the Fifth Horseman. Deny them, I say, your essence.
Instead, know that small batch, by hand, and home-made chocolate chip cookies are the only chocolate chip cookies that may even begin to aspire to the realm of the Sacred and the Holy. A realm in which, like wives, many are cold but none are frozen. Indeed, if Nestles, dairy farms and refrigeration had existed at the time of the Last Supper the entire menu of Holy Communion would be different today.
Partake Only of the Holy Cookie
Like American Christianity today, the Church of the Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookie has many branches, subsets and sects. And, like American Christianity, these various factions contend mightily over the question of which, in the eyes of God, is the true gospel of the Chocolate Chip, the Recipe of the Word.
I do not pretend to know the mind of God. Indeed, I am still unclear about the workings of the will of God in my life. But I am clear about what is the true gospel of the Chocolate Chip. I know beyond a scintilla of a speck of an iota of a jot of a doubt that single Cookie which is now and forever shall be the Greatest Chocolate Chip Cookie in America and the Known Universe, yea even unto that alien planet of the hard-bodied and the homeless, San Francisco.
This Cookie Given by the Hand of God would be, beyond question, of my sainted mother’s chocolate chip cookies. These and these alone are the good, the true, and the blessed — the Holy Cookies. All others crumble before them and return to the dust and detritus of the earth from which they were mistakenly called forth by the unconverted, the heathen and the apostates.
The Advent of the Holy Cookie
I was converted to the Holy Cookie soon after my teeth came in. For several years thereafter I lived in heavenly bliss since the only person in the house with whom I had to contend for ALL the cookies was my father and, even though he was much larger than I was as a toddler, he had to work and sleep sometime. This left me free to range about the kitchen in search of yet one more Holy Cookie. Something I did at all hours until my mother saw fit to deploy a leg shackle along with my fresh pajamas.
Alas, Eden was not to endure forever since I had a couple of brothers coming along in the years that followed. With the advent of these “cookie competitors” the leg shackle was retired, but I was required to learn the always difficult lesson of “Share.”
As the eldest and hence the largest, my capacity to “share” the plate of Holy Cookies my mother would set out for us diminished in direct proportion to the distance between that plate and my mother and/or father, or both. Sharing was on as long as they were in the room, but if they stepped out my little inner Hitler would emerge and endeavor to take all the cookies and the Rhineland as well.
This dictatorial method of getting all the cookies only served me well for a few years. It fell apart on the day it came to my attention that my “little” brother had at last grown large enough to literally kick my ass when it came to taking more than my share of cookies.
Day of the Judgment of the Father
On that day I was also foolish enough to kick back in an effort to retain my rightful share of all the cookies. A small war broke out in the kitchen which caused my mother to come in from the laundry room, break us up, take all the cookies away and cast both my brother and I into the slough of despond by uttering the phrase no child ever, ever wishes to hear from his mother: “Wait till your father gets home.”
An afternoon longer than eternity squared ensued. Our father did get home and subsequently gave instructions to my brother and myself, in turns, on why it was a bad idea to have a fist fight over chocolate chip cookies in his house. He reminded us both of his first and only commandment, “Thou shalt not upset thy mother.” It was a lesson that is “seared, SEARED!, into my memory.”
Like all sinners, this lesson made us repent briefly but did not actually reform. Instead we made an alliance in order to ensure our survival and advance our quest for the Holy Cookie. Sensing, as she always did, this shift in the order of things, my mother took to hiding the Holy Cookies about the house.
She knew that my father favored the cookies, and that if they were not hidden from us, the chances he would have any upon ‘getting home’ would range from slim to somewhere below absolute zero. She became, as all mothers of boys must, sneaky. She began to bake the cookies while we were at school, hide them before we got home. She’d also take care to destroy all evidence that the Holy Cookies had been baked and would carefully air out the house. She always was a clever woman.
Quest for the Holy Cookie
But we were two to her one; the smallest band of brothers on a mission from God. In no time, we found ourselves cowlick deep in a war of spying and surveillance against our own mother. It was a cold war that escalated over time as our methods of sensing and locating the hidden cookies became increasingly sophisticated. Towards the end, these methods became so refined that we could have found a single small Weapon of Mass Destruction under the shifting sands of the Sahara if it happened to have a Holy Cookie in the war head.
But we never were required to go that far afield, even if we once found them in the garage of the people who lived next door. (Their kid, our mole, tipped us off for a paltry three cookies.) Over the years we found them at the bottom of the clothes hamper in the master bath, behind a box of motor oil in the garage, in the trunk of her car, under the camouflage of towels in the dryer, behind the set of World Book Encyclopedias in the den, even taped in coffee cans and stuck up under the kitchen counter concealed behind the disposal unit.
Once, in her despair, she actually sealed them in a large container and buried them behind the shrubs in the back yard. We found them by checking carefully for disturbed earth, and that night snuck out after our parents were asleep, disinterred them with a trowel, ate them all on the spot, and then buried the container again with a Crayoned note that said, “Delicious, The Avengers.” We were bludgeoned with meatloaf sandwiches in our school lunchboxes for a week after that one.
Spies in the House of the Holy Cookie
Mothers know a lot of secrets about their children, but not all secrets. My mother’s favorite way of finding out our secrets was a simple psyche-war method of asserting that she knew what she didn’t know in order to elicit a confession. She’d give us “that look” and say, “Well, you might as well know that I know.”
“Know? Know what?”
“You know what, so you might as well tell me.”
It shames me now to admit that this simple ploy worked on more than one occasion. What never worked, and what she was never to figure out, was how we knew when the Holy Cookies had been made.
Early on it dawned on her that we were watching the house supply of Nestle’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips. When those bags were used or diminished, it would be a dead give-away that there were cookies to be located and my brother and I would, as a team, work the grid. Using step-stools, ladders, and a mirror attached to a broom-handle that I kept taped above the door in my closet, there was no area of the home we could not scan. Sooner or later, once we knew they were around, we’d find them. Kids don’t have many resources, but they do have oceans of time.
Her solution, so she thought, was to buy replacement bags of chocolate chips before baking a batch. In that way, she foolishly assumed we’d assume — seeing a full bag undisturbed — that no cookies had been baked that day. What she did not know, and was never to learn, was that each bag of chocolate chips in the house was marked with a small dot of ink on the lower right hand corner of the back of the bag as soon as we could get to it in stealth mode. We’d check the bag daily after that and when it did not have that mark we would know the truth.
We also, as a back-up, used faint pencil marks, not on the level of Scotch in my father’s bottle (that was to come later), but on the canister of Quaker Oats which were another essential ingredient of the Holy Cookie. She bought the economy sized canister and we discovered that using a red pencil on the red part of the package was almost undetectable unless you were looking for it, which we always were.
The Holy Cookie Cold War
The Holy Cookie Cold War of stealth and surveillance continued across the years until my second brother and I left the home for college. My mother breathed a sigh of relief at our departures. Little did she know that before we left we had passed on the full Holy Cookie Finder File to our little brother ten years my junior. He carried on the tradition until he too left. At which point my mother brought out the apple shaped cookie jar which had been stored away for decades and began to enjoy the long peace as well as a cookie or two from time to time.
Except, of course, there would be no peace. The begging letters and phone calls came in from colleges, apartments and houses across the country and down through the years. From time to time, these pathetic screeds and whines would elicit a package of the Holy Cookie, but only at the kind of interval that makes the Pavlovian Rat press the pellet bar that much more compulsively. As long as she held the keys to the Holy Cookie, my mother knew she would hear from us frequently.
But the technology of the time was working against us and the Holy Cookie. This was the pre-eBay era when packing and shipping were still lost arts to most Americans. Lost most of all, I regret to say, to our mother.
East of Eden and the Problem of the Post Office
For while she could bake, she could not ship. As a result of this and the less-than-reverent attitude of the United States Postal Service, the shipments of the Holy Cookies would arrive transmogrified into the Holy Cookie Crumbs. It is, I have discovered, very difficult to dunk a crumb into a glass of cold milk to any sort of meaningful effect other than crummy milk.
After suffering our complaints for longer than anyone other than a mother would, she finally took drastic action. She had to. After all, she had a life to live, friends to see, places to go and tennis sets to play. We were grown men now with fully dysfunctional families of our own, and she was no longer going to allow herself to be crucified on the golden cross of the Holy Cookie.
And so it was that on one faithful day, her three sons received in the mail, not the Holy Cookies for which they begged, but the Holy Cookie recipe and instructions that they learn to cook. I love my mother, but she can be a cold woman once she makes up her mind.
The Torch is Passed to a New Generation
On the other hand, my need was great and my understanding of the gap between desire and gratification scant. And so I learned, at last, to cook. It was one of my mother’s many fine and enduring gifts, perhaps the finest next to, of course, life itself.
First, out of sheer necessity, I learned the Holy Cookie and, when that turned out well after only a few disasters, I went on to learning to cook other things. Things like entrees, side dishes, bread and desert right down to and including a Chocolate Souffle.
As my confidence grew I took to exotic dishes and found myself in a Chinese cooking course. Other cuisines followed. I even, during my stint as a book editor for Houghton Mifflin, published one cookbook ( Fear of Cooking: The Absolutely Foolproof Cookbook for Beginners (And Everyone Else) by Robert Scher Amazon rank: 1,332,536 which is not that bad for a book published in 1984).
And so, from a cookie recipe, I grew to have one of the basic life skills that everyone should have; a skill no longer taught in our schools since it is much more important that our children learn the Inner Meaning of the Inner Child of the Maori-Americans than how to do anything with food other than pick a number at the drive-through window. I learned it from my mother who taught it to me not by doing, but by standing out of the way and not doing; by letting me discover how to do it myself. That’s always the path to the real higher education in life. It’s a path never taught in our crippled schools but always open to everyone regardless of age, color, creed, national origin. All you have to have to get on the path is the need to learn something and the passion to do it yourself.
That and a recipe. Here it is. What are you waiting for? Gentlemen, start your ovens.
BEHOLD I BRING YOU TIDINGS OF GREAT JOY
MOM’S (Lois Lucille McNair Van der Leun’s ) CLASSIC OATMEAL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Please note: It is not to be made merely by combing the ingredients but by following the procedure, the sacred ritual.
Combine: 3/4 Cup brown sugar with 3/4 Cup white sugar.
Mix in until smooth but gritty 1 cup shortening ( Crisco [classic] or butter/marge + Crisco in varying proportions )* This, and other mixing moments, can be done with your hands if a) you have washed them, and b) nobody’s around to see you do it. Maintain plausible deniability.
Add 2 eggs — Beaten– plus 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Combine One and 1/2 Cups flour with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon soda and then work into sugar, shortening and egg mixture until smooth.
Add two cups of rolled oats and work into the dough. Add one 12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips (No more. Resist temptation.) and (optional) 1 cup chopped black walnuts**. Shape into medium-sized (no more than 3″ in diameter, baked) cookies and bake on a greased cookie sheet
Bake in a 350 oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Monitor at around 8 minutes.
The recipe is usually good for 2-3 standard size cookie sheets. When baking, it is best to start one tray in the lower rack of the oven and after eight minutes move it to the upper.
Allow to cool. You will snake three to five and burn your lip on the first bite, but try to show a little restraint after this, okay?
Yield: 4-5 Dozen
Note: The Holy Cookie, when baked to perfection, should not be chewy or soft but possess, upon being cooled, a toothsome quality and a certain proportion of crisp-walled open cells throughout the cookie that absorb milk when dunked, but do not become a milk sodden mush. The milk should be present within the cells of the cookie, but the cookie itself, providing one has not be lazy and let it just slosh around in the glass, should still retain a certain crispness and emit a distinct crunch when consumed.
* Yes, Crisco. This ancient pure product of Amerca can still be found in the baking aisle. The Holy Cookies cannot achieve their proper milk absorbing properties without its presence. If you have some sort of issue with Crisco, get over it and just cowboy up. While butter or margarine can be used in combination with Crisco, their proportions are problematical. One stick is probably the maximum.
** Black Walnuts are optional but not, strictly speaking, classic. Still, they add an extra texture which is appealing, unless, of course, you are allergic to walnuts in which case you eat them and you die — happy and with an enhanced skill set.
[ UPDATED FROM 5 YEARS AGO]