Rated “X”

Cookie-cutter cookies were a tradition in our family — and not just at Christmastime. I grew up with cutout sugar cookies during the holidays.  My mother frosted them with a basic white, powdered sugar frosting; and we kids decorated them with a variety of colored sugars, silver B-B shots, and chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles.  They had to be perfect to serve to guests or to eat on Christmas Eve. Those that were not my mom crudely labeled as “cripples.”  We got to eat cripples anytime after Thanksgiving.

I continued this baking fetish for Christmas but also expanded it throughout the calendar year. Rolled sugar cookies are fragile, and I limited our production to holidays throughout the year so that they could be eaten at home. Over the calendar year we had Valentine cookies, Easter Cookies, and Halloween cookies. I even had a turkey cutter for Thanksgiving.

When my own children developed a mature pallet, I experimented with gingerbread and molasses cookie recipes until I found one that pleased the family. So, after settling upon a taste we all liked we began baking our version of gingerbread boys for Christmas. We had two people cutters — a short, chubby one and a taller, slender cutter.  It was the second cutter that everyone preferred (probably because it was so large that the “one cookie” rule meant you got about three times more cookie that the shorter one afforded.)

Once the cookies were baked, cooled, and stored we had a planned event — Cookie Decorating Night.  Even their father joined in, and often friends got to help. Over the years we graduated from sprinkling on colored sugars to using a frosting bag with piping tubes for details like stripes on a skirt, dots for buttons, and rosettes as texture. Everyone developed quite steady hands, and the results were grand.

All too soon, my three little bakers and decorators were teens.  Their senses of humor matured along with their minds and bodies. I wondered just when the cookie decorating tradition would be too mundane for them.  But, it never happened.  They dropped everything for the chance to join in.

It was inevitable that one Christmas season would present a conflict. Their dad and I were invited to a holiday party on the very night we had scheduled the annual decorating marathon. My alternatives were to do the cookie decorating during the day while everyone was in school or to allow the teens to take over the job. When I gave them my suggestions, all three volunteered to be in charge that year. And, so, with cookies and icings and sugars sorted and laid out on the breakfast bar, I accompanied their dad to a holiday affair. I had to trust that the job would be done to my specifications.

It was one in the morning when their dad and I finally made it home. Warmed by festive toddies, we wondered aloud if any of the cookies would be left uneaten and if the kids had done what had been expected. To our surprise the entire kitchen was covered with cooling racks and lines of paper towels covered with beautiful Christmas cookies. The tree cookies had silver stars on top and colored sugars sprinkled in neat garlands. The candy cane versions had alternating rows of red and green stripes. The star cookies had intricate patterns and piped frills.

When we got to the gingerbread “people,” we stopped dead in our tracks. No more little jackets with buttons. No more stripes defining cuff bottoms on legs and arms. No more innocent smiles across beaming faces. Our gingerbread cookies were anatomically correct! Some were full frontal renditions, and others were rear views. Some were female, and others male. Some sported bikinis. One gorgeous blonde had long, flowing tresses and a curvy “butt crack.” Her version was repeated many times. The males were a bit more modest — some even had fig leaves. Breasts were done in a variety of sizes and perkiness. A hand-written recipe card was folded tent-style and warned, “This section is Rated X.”

We laughed until we had tears. Although they were beautiful, that year our family had to put them in Grandma’s “crippled” category. With much laughter and many comments we ate all of them before Christmas Eve.

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Wash My Hands? What For?

Kids raised in Wyoming — especially in the country — have at their disposal an opportunity to nurture and display livestock. Younger children do this in 4-H, and teens can go a step farther and join FFA. Mine had 4-H project animals: market steers, market hogs, horses, and dogs. County Fair marked the end of the project each year, and my kids lived for the annual August highlight.

Our family learned early on that the “open” categories for competition sometimes suited our youth better than the 4-H version. Thus it was that each summer my daughters entered a variety of cookies into open competition rather than deal with the year-long tedium of taking a 4-H baking project.

My girls had market hogs at the County Fair — penned in the hog barn in little paddocks filled with sawdust.  During Fair Week, they spent each morning and each evening at the barn caring for and grooming their specimens before competition. Their usual attire was jeans, western shirts, and worn cowboy boots. A daily pig bath was tradition, and the girls began early each morning with pen cleaning and pig exercising.  Then would come the baths — community affairs with much boy-girl flirting and spraying with hoses.  Afterwards, pink pigs were powdered, and red ones were oiled. The fine trimming of stray hairs and whiskers happened just before show time.

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Daughter number two had signed up to show her 4-H market pig, to show two 4-H horses at halter and in performance classes, to compete in the various 4-H classes in the dog show, and to enter peanut butter cookies in the open division. At age nine she had come home from the hog barn on her bike, had eaten some lunch, and had begun baking — all one her own. I had arrived just in time to find her sitting at the breakfast bar and rolling balls of cookie dough for her prepared pans.  She was still wearing the morning’s cowboy shirt and jeans, and her wet, muddy boots were swinging beneath the barstool. I saw her recipe on the bar and glanced at the oven dial to note the temperature.

“How’s it going, honey?” were my first words.  Then I asked, “Did you wash your hands?”

“Wash my hands? What for?”

I paused to consider what she might have been thinking before choosing to not reprimand her. Hadn’t she just spent the morning in lather? Hadn’t she shown how responsible she was by starting her cookies all on her own? Hadn’t she just charmed me with her winning smile?

The following day, her 4-H market hog won a blue ribbon, and two days later her cookies won the purple GRAND Champion open competition ribbon — a victory against some of the county’s best adult bakers. I was mortified. The Fair’s very best cookies always went to members of the Fair Board and a few County Commissioners! Little did those unsuspecting adults know that the secret ingredients of those prize-winners may have been a hog hair or two plus essence of livestock shampoo.