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Cooking Up History: Holiday Baking with a Retro Twist

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“Our Christmas Gift List,” The Frontier (O’Neill City, NE), November 17, 1960.

“It just wouldn’t be the holidays without holiday cookies, candies, and sweets, and as we make our own gift list, we note friends and relatives…who would particularly appreciate a package made up of these goodies.” This could have been written for 2020, but (a few minor edits aside) it appeared 60 years ago in The Frontier, a Nebraska newspaper. The two-page article provides tips for organizing seasonal baking and three cookie recipes, for chocolate thumbprints, Christmas boots, and macaroon wreaths. “An old fashioned tree trimming party” is out this year, but we can still enjoy the peppermint rounds from a 1963 issue of the Detroit Tribune.

If you’d like to “make a start now on the sweets” for your holiday needs, the Library’s Chronicling America* collection is a great place to look for ideas. Old newspapers hold a wealth of recipes for delicious cookies that are also a perfect way to occupy housebound family members. If, at the same time, you can check off some items on your gifting to-do list, so much the better! A 1955 flour ad suggests bonbon cookies, “the most thrilling baking creation to come out of our kitchens in years….and so easy even the children can help.” Recipes for tempting treats in the Roanoke Rapids Herald (1933) include butterfingers, cinnamon stars, and brown sugar chews. The complicated instructions for getting a 1930s oven to the ideal temperature for cookie-baking will make you very grateful for a modern, reliably calibrated one.

“GINGER WAFERS: They’re Mrs. Gravander’s Holiday Special,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 25, 1956.

Another fascinating element of these newspaper holiday recipes is how they connect with family origins and traditions. A 1956 piece in the Washington DC Evening Star provides a snapshot of “old-country customs” in a profile of Valborg Gravander, “a good baker from Sweden” who immigrated to California in 1922. Every year, she honored holiday customs by wearing traditional Swedish dress, baking “hundreds of dozens” of cookies, and hosting a St Lucia celebration on December 13th. Recipes for ginger cookies, almond tarts, coffee fingers, holiday meringues accompany a picture of a beaming Mrs. Gravander showing off some of her goodies and looking like a charming grandma from a folk tale.

Esther Guerin from Arizona inherited family recipes and know-how from her Italian-born parents and aunts. Deciding that “a home-baked present for her dearest friends would have more meaning than the store-bought kind”, by 1953 she was producing “at least 3,500 cookies of 14 kinds to fill 62 gift boxes” some holding as many as 10 pounds of treats. Her recipes for zuccarini, torcetti, Russian tea cookies, butterballs, and sand tarts certainly look tempting.

Praline meringue cookies
“Aunt Ida’s Praline Kisses” as prepared by Rachel Gordon

One heartwarming piece from 1955 was prompted by a proud and clearly smitten husband, Mr. Norvin Vaughan. He wrote a three page “indirect love letter” to food writer Clementine Paddleford about his wife Adale, “a wizard in the kitchen”. He felt she deserved to be featured in Ms. Paddleford’s How America Eats newspaper column. For Christmas 1954, she had churned out over 10,000 cookies of 34 different varieties – and that was only part of her holiday baking. “My Adale is a rare jewel with a heart as big as a barn door. Come and see for yourself.” The writer traveled to Chicago to meet this paragon and found she was “just as wonderful and amazing as her husband claimed.” Six of her cookie recipes with “an old-country German flavor” accompanied the resulting four-page spread, published in November 1955. A former army nurse in the Pacific during World War II, Mrs. Vaughan inherited her German recipes and cookbooks from her family. I can vouch for her quick and easy recipe for Aunt Ida’s Praline Kisses. Drizzling melted chocolate over the cooled cookies would make them even yummier. They were so good that I confess I did throw some of them away; I knew I’d eat the whole batch if I didn’t!

If you end up emulating Mmes. Gravander, Guerin, and Vaughan this year, what to do with all these goodies once you’ve made them? A cookie swap is always a popular idea. Twenty-twenty is not the year for the type of Christmas Cookie Coffee Party described in a 1961 edition of the Montana-Farmer Stockman, but a quick online search will turn up ways to adapt this seasonal staple to COVID protocols. Alternatively, simply box up a few and share with friends and neighbors. A fun and environmentally-friendly way to do this is to repurpose decorated empty containers as gift packaging, as suggested in a 1956 issue of the Evening Star.

However you decide to distribute your cookie bonanza, your family, friends, and neighbors will certainly appreciate them. You’ll create and share lovely memories at the close of a challenging year – and as we head into 2021, what could be sweeter than that?

You can find more cooking and food-related blog posts from our colleagues in the Science, Business, and Technology Division’s blog, Inside Adams.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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