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?

Why Boomers Love “A Christmas Story”

We may have grown up watching “A Christmas Carol” in glorious black and white — both the 1938 version and the Alistair Sims 1951 version — but the Dickensonian milieu of the movie is not what boomers associate with their Christmases. For that, we prefer “A Christmas Story.” In fact, we love it.

The film, released in 1983, tells the story of Ralphie (played by Peter Billingsley) and his family at Christmas time, and how he got the gift he really wanted: a Red Ryder BB gun. Many people don’t know that the movie is actually a conglomeration of several short stories by humorist Jean Shepherd. Many boomers will recall listening to Jean Shepherd on the radio, which may be a contributing factor to our nostalgic enjoyment.

Mister Boomer’s theory of why the movie is tops with boomers is a simple one: the movie accurately portrays our early lives, especially those of us raised in the Upper Midwest. Though the movie takes place around 1940, much of the scenarios were customary in the fifties and early sixties, too. For instance:

Snow at Christmas
About two-thirds of the country experiences seasonal changes, including some snowfall. For us Midwestern boomers, though, it was more common to have snow at Christmas than not to have it.

Snow Suits
We laugh hysterically at Ralphie’s little brother in his snow suit. Ralphie’s mother (played by Melinda Dillon) dressed his little brother for the winter elements, wrapping him in so many thick layers (it was decades before lightweight, warm, synthetic fabrics) that by the time his one-piece snow suit was fitted over him he could no longer lower his arms. When he falls in the snow and can’t get up (actually, he was pushed, as the video reveals), it’s a “been there, done that” moment for many of us.

Dangerous Toys
Ralphie wants a BB gun for Christmas, but first his mother, then his teacher tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Thinking Santa would be on his side, he finally reveals to the not-so-jolly department store Santa his object of gift desire. Santa’s response was like the other grown-ups in his life: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Against the better judgment of the women and Santa, Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) bought him the gun.

Most of us recall receiving all sorts of potential eye-shooter-outers at Christmas. Guns, bows and arrows, projectile-shooting robots and missile launchers that would be taboo today made their way to under the tree for boomer boys. Girls had to settle for choking hazards from doll accessories, tea sets and miniature everything. They seemed to be prone to only throwing things in anger rather than as a matter of course.

A Handyman Dad
Boomers grew up in a time when men were supposed to fix things around the house. The truth of the matter is, though, many men weren’t all that handy. Ralphie’s dad fell into that category. When the overloaded electrical socket blew a fuse, or the furnace was “on the fritz,” his dad trudged down to the basement. There, the family could hear him through the heat registers, clanging pipes and swearing profusely.

The Behemoth Furnace
Though the furnace is never shown in the movie, boomers can picture it exactly. There is no doubt it was a behemoth octopus of a contraption, with many arms reaching out to the different rooms of the house through the basement ceiling. As portrayed in the movie by the black soot blown through the registers, it was powered by coal. Many of us boomers played in the coal bins of our family’s or relatives’ basements, even after the coal furnaces were retro-fitted for natural gas.

The Department Store Santa
Boomers recall that many stores had Santas available for visits, but it was understood that the main department store in the area had the “real” one. As was the case with Ralphie, many boomers recall freezing up in the presence of the Jolly One, sometimes even becoming paralyzed with fear and driven to tears.

Restaurants On Christmas
When the neighbor’s dogs break into the house and attack the Parker family’s Christmas turkey, they were left with no choice but to go out to dinner. Boomers recall that when we were growing up, Christmas dinner was strictly a family affair. Restaurants were not open on Christmas Day. The movie accurately portrays the only area restaurant open was a Chinese restaurant, and it was empty when they walked in.

Homemade or “Useful” Gifts
Come Christmas morning, Ralphie and his brother opened gifts, quickly passing by the socks and pajamas to get to the good stuff. Ralphie had the misfortune of receiving a pink bunny rabbit suit from his aunt. His mother insisted he try it on, which he did reluctantly. Standing at the top of the stairs, his mother found him adorable, while his father recognized his humiliation.

Many of us recall aunts or grandmothers who knitted or sewed outrageous sweaters, vests, hats and mittens. And many of us were forced to wear the items, if only in the presence of the gifter.

Neighborhood or Schoolyard Bullies
In our day, every neighborhood had groups of kids that hung out together, but in every neighborhood and schoolyard, there were bullies. Fed up with getting pelted with snowballs and taunts, Ralphie went ballistic on his bully, giving the boy a bloody nose and making him cry. For many of us, that was a boomer vicarious thrill.

Boomer Mouthwash
When Ralphie lets loose the F-bomb in front of his mother, she shoves a bar of soap in his mouth. Nowadays a parent might get some unwanted legal trouble for this type of discipline, but boomers will recall that punishment as the norm for uttering “dirty words.”

In the end, the Parker family had a good, yet far from a Norman Rockwell, Hallmark kind of Christmas. That turns out to be another thing we boomers can identify with in the film. Mister Boomer knows other boomers who can recite swaths of dialogue from the movie. If by some crazy circumstance you’ve missed it on TV these past few years, pick up the DVD. It’s a fun trip down Christmas memory lane.

What’s your favorite Christmas movie, boomers?