Today is Father’s Day, so for the last several days, I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with a post that is simultaneously about writing and my dad. It shouldn’t be that hard: after all, he’s the one who gave me my first technical editing jobs.
He is a Physics PhD. At the time, he was a professor of graduate students, and my qualifications were that I was thirteen and wholly unemployed, and also one of the few able to read his tight-but-loopy handwriting. Plus, I knew most of the Greek alphabet, both upper- and lowercase. And thus I became the line editor of his journal articles (though I had no idea what it was called then), after which they were handed off to a department secretary charged with typing them on a noisy, olive-green IBM Selectric, a machine I secretly covet to this day.
From there, it would be nice to be able to say I knew back then I’d grow up to be an editor, that it was in my blood… but I had no clue.
However, we do have a Father’s Day tradition in our family. Every year I make my grandmother’s cookies, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. She lived first in Brooklyn and then later in Florida, and we lived in the Midwest. She used to bake up a gross of them and send them parcel-post in a shoebox thickly lined with aluminum foil and secured with a complicated series of rubber bands.
Now, the treats that came in that box are cookies in name only. They’re more like beige hockey pucks, neither sweet nor crispy nor chewy, and a week or more of cross-country transit in no way improves their taste or texture. They look like half-pretzels, and sometimes they’d come with a fat walnut pressed into the center. Sometimes not. Once, she used blanched, slivered almonds, which completely stupefied us. Sometimes the cookies were doughy, sometimes they were hard all the way through, and we risked our incisors with every bite. No matter their decoration, my dad has always loved those cookies. For the rest of us, they’re an acquired taste, much like a cross between sand and cornmeal. So in our house, they became “sand cookies”.
When I was nine, my grandma came to visit, so I cornered her and asked for the recipe. I had a notebook and a pencil and was all poised to write it down, but she said she’d have to show me.
What transpired next I found absolutely baffling. Grandma didn’t measure. She scooped flour out of the bin with her hand and threw it into the bowl like it had pissed her off. She used a teaspoon, not the measuring spoons I offered. She stirred up the dough with her hands, not a mixer, and I tried to follow along and ask questions. “How much flour was that?” “Eight.” “Eight what??” “Handfuls. We might need more. It depends when you mix.” I remember staring at the bowl and shaking my head. I couldn’t comprehend a universe in which one baked without a recipe, instructions.
I still have the notebook where I wrote down the bits of method I was able to glean. You need 5 teaspoons of baking powder, which is an astronomical amount. I know of no other food that needs so much baking powder just to be edible.
So long story short, Grandma passed away in the mid-nineties and the recipe died with her. A few years later, I was looking for a Father’s Day present, and make no mistake: the man loathes ties and he already has every gadget, every tool, every computer, every gewgaw known to mankind. He’s even invented a few, which is why it’s nearly impossible to find him something gift-y. But by that time, I was a software engineer employed by one of the first search engines, so I typed “5 tsp. baking powder flour eggs sugar” into the box and figured nothing would come back.
Bingo! First result! Turns out they’re called Kichel. I made my dad a batch of those cookies and presented them in a shoebox, all wrapped up in tinfoil, and they were… awful, just like Grandma used to make. But he loved them.
Today, when I showed up with the traditional, foil-lined shoebox, I put it on the snack table next to the artichoke dip and the three kinds of chips. My dad hesitated only a second before snatching that box off the table and moving it to the other side of the room.
“Not gonna share those,” he said.
I absolutely love that man.