VARIATIONS ON A THEME
I took one bite of that cookie and I knew there was something in there that I'd never tasted before. It was crunchy; I hoped it was something edible.
My son, Jack, was in ninth grade. He had taken over my job as cookie-maker. But did he aspire to make cookies just like mine? Uh-uh. He was a teenager. The job of a teenager is to look at the world and say, "I can do better than this!"
He saw the way I made cookies -- always the same, always following the directions on that yellow Nestle's bag -- and he sought to improve on it.
For him, a recipe is to baking what a musical score is to a jazz musician. It's a point of departure, a reference point from which to deviate as far as possible and still come up with something the audience is willing to accept.
Whenever Jack would approach us with a platter of warm cookies, Harry and I would glance at each other before reaching for one, both of us thinking, "Is it safe?"
If it was in the kitchen, it could end up in his cookie dough. Pine nuts, oregano, Worcestershire sauce, curry, cream cheese, whatever.
The more poker-faced Jack appeared, the more outlandish the ingredients. One of his more successful experiments involved cayenne pepper. It was not overpowering, but these were cookies that made you stop and think.
Jack takes the same joy in baking that I do. I've always loved having an oven with a window, so I can watch the lumps of dough slowly melt, and spread, and puff. Once, while sitting on the kitchen floor next to Jack as we peered through the oven window, he said, "I like this part. Right here...where they're maxed out on puffiness, and they start to collapse. It looks like they're breathing."
That's mah boy.
In our family, the worst insult you can give someone's cooking is to say that it's "memorable."
Jack made quite a few batches of memorable cookies. One unforgettable attempt involved adding too much butter and oil. We watched through the tinted oven window as the pale circles flattened, spread and fused into one brown rectangle.
I was fuming. What a waste of good ingredients. Why can't this kid just follow directions, like everybody else? I said nothing and stalked out of the room.
And then I heard the banging coming from the kitchen. Jack was swinging a hammer down on the cookie sheet.
He looked up at me, triumphant, and said, "Cookie brittle."
But then there was that time with the crunchy mystery ingredient. I chewed slowly, cautiously. What was it? Jack had a twinkle in his eye that was nearly audible. He was loving this.
"C'mon, Jack. What is it?"
All I got from him was a hysterical giggle. When I put down the cookie, he quickly picked one up and ate it, proof that it was safe.
Through a mouthful of mystery cookie, he said, "Don't worry. It's not, like, sand or anything."
Sand? I hadn't thought of sand.
His parakeet was squawking in the other room. Jack glanced toward the sound and allowed a lop-sided grin to give him away.
I shook my head slowly and said, "No..."
He nodded his head ever so slightly.
By now, he was laughing so hard he had to support himself against the kitchen counter.
I wasn't sure he could hear me over the sound of his own laughter, but I shouted, "Bird seed? Jack, you put bird seed in the cookies?"
He was palming the tears from his eyes as he said, "It's food..."
I don't believe I would ever eat bird-seed cookies again, but if the truth be told, they weren't bad.