Have Boomers Half-Baked the Holiday Cookie Tradition?

Mister Boomer is exhausted. He just completed his annual Big Bake Weekend, which is a marathon of cookie baking for the holidays. Mister B doesn’t go for those cookie-cutter sugar varieties that are iced with neon-colored sugar. He prefers the butter-infused, chocolate-possesed, nutty-filled, lemon-zesty decadence that puts the “m-m-m-m” back in “holiday.” It’s got to be a rock ‘n’ roll cookie, if you want to holiday dance with Mister B.

Most definitely, Mister B’s recipe box is filled with cookies of days gone by: childhood favorites like buttermilk fruit drop cookies from his mother; mincemeat mini-turnovers from his aunt; and anise cookies from his grandmother. Yet through the years, older traditional recipes have fallen prey to newer models. Some were set aside because of time restraints. For others, hard to find ingredients did them in. For others still, changing tastes altered the flavor landscape.

All that baking got Mister B thinking about the role holiday baking played in our boomer lives, and how our boomer lives have since affected holiday baking. It all started with Toll House® cookies around 1930. Though attributed to different creators, historians agree the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts was the birthplace of the modern chocolate chip cookie. How does that figure into our holiday baking story? The Toll House agreed to sell the recipe to Nestlé, and it was subsequently printed on, first, every bar of semi-sweet chocolate, then on every bag of chocolate chips once they were introduced.

Our grandparents would have been around to try the recipe, but holiday baking remained all about tradition. They suffered for their baking, first due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression, then from sugar and butter rationing during the Second World War. We all recall our mothers baking with margarine instead of butter. That substitute grew in popularity from the butter-rationing days. After the war, our mothers were modern homemakers. As the country’s prosperity grew and the first boomers were heading to school, contemporary women wanted to embrace the Space Age technology that would free up their time in the kitchen. This occurred not only with electric appliances like the hand mixer, but also in the form of instant cookie mixes.

Though Duncan Hines introduced packaged cake mixes over a decade earlier, cookie mixes started to appear in the early boomer years. Betty Crocker’s foray into the packaged cookie mix realm began in 1947 with a Gingerbread Cake Mix that was quickly renamed Gingerbread Cake and Cookie Mix. A 1951 newspaper account in Pittsburgh touted a “just add water” packaged cookie mix that went on sale that February day, without ever naming the company brand.

Still, our mothers didn’t wholly embrace the packaged cookie mix. The prevailing thought was that the mixes were inconsistent, and couldn’t match the taste of from-scratch baking. They did, however, embrace the brand name sponsored recipes that were printed everywhere in our childhood years. Some of the treasured family recipes we boomers fondly recall didn’t come from the old country after all. Rather, they came from a package of chocolate chips, a butter carton, flour package, sugar bag, newspaper article or magazines like Family Circle and Good Housekeeping. Every recipe contained product names followed by a registered trademark.

By the time the 1960s arrived, Pillsbury had introduced refrigerated dough. Now baking a cookie was as easy as opening a package, cutting the dough into slices and placing them on a baking sheet. In 1966, the company’s advertising was based on a “Busy Lady” theme to appeal to boomers’ moms who had headed back to the workforce. For many moms enthralled with the instant breakfast drink of the astronauts and the world imagined by The Jetsons, this was progress. It would seem another blow to traditional holiday baking had been struck.

While it looked like traditional baking had started its inevitable downward spiral, there was a bit of a home-baking revival in the early 1970s. The first boomers were having families of their own by then, and Betty Crocker released The Joy of Cooking. This book became the cooking and baking bible of the modern homemaker, and its recipes ruled the roost for the next decade.

By the time we boomers reached the 1980s, though, a serious shift had occurred. Fewer and fewer moms were baking holiday treats for and along with their children. Toll House cookies now came in packaged form. For many children of the 80s, dropping that pre-made dough on a cookie sheet was the closest they’d get to home baking.

While this Betty Crocker commercial from a couple of years ago gets points for breaking the holiday baker gender stereotype, the selling point isn’t that men and boys can bake — it’s all about the little time it takes.

We boomers have memories of licking the metal beaters as soon as mom removed them from the electric mixer. Siblings fought over who would lick the spoon that stirred the batter. We tried our hand at twisting, cutting and shaping cookies and icing them once they came out of the oven. The aroma of baking cookies would fill the house. It was more than baking. It was the scent of the holidays.

Now that a good portion of our generation are grandparents, perhaps it’s time to revive the holiday baking tradition. Have you baked something for your grandchildren this holiday season? Were they present and did they, in their own way, help? Come on, boomers, make it happen! After all, weren’t we the generation that invented the idea of putting raw cookie dough into ice cream? Surely we were conjuring up memories of eating that dough while our moms baked us a holiday to remember.

What is your favorite holiday cookie baking memory, boomers?

One thought on “Have Boomers Half-Baked the Holiday Cookie Tradition?”

  1. I liked the cookie cutter homemade Xmz cookies. The better to fall on. I miss the walnuts and assorted other nuts that you had to crack open. Nowadays it seems all the ‘walnut meats’ (now THERE’S an oxymoron) come pre-shelled.

    Another Polish Christmas tradition is Polish sushi, better known as ‘shledge’, which is herring either pickled or creamed.

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