In one of my favorite flashbacks to childhood, I am at my Great-Grandma Tillie Brown’s house on a corner lot in Bathgate, N.D. I remember standing in the kitchen, near the counter, which I could not see over. I must have been about four years old.
I remember Grandma Brown reaching for a red Foldgers coffee can – her cookie jar. I can still hear the sound of the plastic lid separating from the tin can and I remember the smell of the oatmeal raisin cookies so clearly that I can almost taste them.
When I reached for a cookie, I could hear the crinkling of wax paper inside the can. Once I chose a cookie, I noticed it was bigger than my hand. Sugar fell from the top of the cookie on to the linoleum floor, but there was still plenty left on top. I devoured that afternoon snack not knowing at the time that it was attached to a secret recipe.
Now that I’m older I hear the stories and realize just how famous Grandma Brown’s cookies had become. Their fame stretches beyond our family. I’m told Grandma Brown would answer the door to find neighborhood children who needed a break from playing.
“Could we have a raisin cookie, Mrs. Brown?” the children asked.
When Grandma Brown baked those famous cookies, she was the only person allowed in her kitchen. She guarded her secret from everyone. When she passed away in 1986, she took her secrets with her.
I tried making the cookies, as many others have, and I failed miserably. The cookies came out looking (and tasting) like little white hockey pucks with raisin dots. Those were not the cookies I taste in my memory.
What no one in the family realized is that they each had a piece of the secret recipe. Years ago, my grandma Helen McCurdy talked about sneaking a peak in the kitchen when her mother didn’t know she was watching.
“I saw her add some raisin juice to the dough – it gave it that nice brown color,” she said.
During the course of my more recent research I discussed the process with my aunt and my mom. Maybe she rolled a dough ball and then pressed
a glass with sugar on top. Maybe she rolled a dough ball, patted it down and then sprinkled it with sugar.
My dad walked in on the conversation and said with confidence, “She rolled out those cookies,” even though, traditionally, oatmeal raisin cookies are drop cookies.
The best piece of the puzzle came from Tillie’s great-niece during my recent visit to Detroit Lakes. Muriel Mollberg says Tillie put the eggs in last – even after the flour. We talked about the unusual nature of this, since that’s just not how recipes are traditionally followed.
I made three more batches of the cookies, incorporating each new trick as I learned them. I became obsessed with tasting the cookies that I remembered. My final attempt combined all of the tricks I learned from relatives: I added the egg last, rolled out the cookies, cut them and sprinkled sugar on top. I sent them into the oven and that’s when I finally smelled the sweet scent from my memory.
They weren’t exactly the same as Grandma Brown’s, but they were still beautiful. I sat down with a tall glass of milk and I ate the whole batch. I had to make another batch to send to my dad, my aunts and to Muriel. I considered it practice.
Now all I need is some wax paper and a Foldgers coffee can.