Saturday, December 19, 2009

Animal Cookies

We went to Columbia a few nights this past week to assist my mom in making her animal cookies (a.k.a. shape cookies, cut-out cookies, sugar cookies with decorations). Although among her various cookie cutters there are fir trees, bells, wreathes, stars, and holly leaves, a majority of the shapes are of animals.

They include butterflies, fish, birds (swan, rooster, cardinal), and mammals (squirrel, rabbit, elephant, pig, goat, horse, coyote, Scotch terrier, and lion). No reptiles or amphibians, and precious few invertebrates (well, so far).

Mom’s mom used to make animal cookies, too, so this is something my mom and aunt do and remember her by. My aunt’s family, I hear, really let themselves “go” when it’s time to decorate these. Well, they have a bigger family, so it can get louder and more exciting than when it’s just three or four people working.

All the pastry decorations are bought out, whether they’re Christmassy or not; mom does the icing. When I was a kid and mom had more gumption, she’d mix up different colors of icing—so it was possible to have some pink elephants, for instance. This year she just did white and green.

We always strive to come up with creative twists instead of the literal decorations you might imagine. A fish turned on its head becomes an ear of corn, using yellow sugar sprinkles down the middle and green lines down the sides. When you rotate the swan just so, his body can look like the pointy face of a vulture, with a skinny little U-shaped neck.

Yes, we do decorate many of the cookies “straight,” so we can serve them to high-class company whenever they show up. But I personally prefer the ones that make me laugh because of the whimsy, or even because they’re kinda rude.

Like, I don’t know what’s supposed to be the deal with this Scotty. Hemorrhoids? Did it eat too much jalapeƱo salsa? Or is she “in season”? Anyway, it cracks me up to see it.

For a long time, we have joked that the “last” cookie, made with scraps not big enough to use a cookie cutter on, is “the amoeba.” It’s a free-form wad of dough simply rolled out and plopped onto a cookie sheet.

But this year, I made a couple of amoebas on purpose, shaping them with a butter knife. Pretty cool, huh?

Mom’s been wanting to wrangle herself out of the Christmas cookie scene. I think she feels underappreciated, or like it’s something that takes a lot out of her. But then again, the fun also perks her up, and she’s out of her mind if she thinks we don’t appreciate it.

This is the kind of thing we’ll remember about her forever—her sitting at the table, icing the cookies with a butter knife, while we sit nearby with toothpick and tweezers, doctoring the decorations and snickering about our creative “discoveries.” Like the year my dad made the first “plaid Scotty.”

Mom customarily tells us to quit being so silly and complains that we need to make sure some of the cookies look “nice.” We adore it when she counters our sillyness, which is really a part of playing along. And because she laughs at our shenanigans even as she shakes her head in mock disgust, I know she adores it, too.

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