Sunday, December 18, 2011

The holiday baker

I don't remember Grace Kessler ever being out of her house.

Grace Kessler in 1946
Even when I was a child, Nana Kessler seemed like an old lady. And I mean that in the literal sense of the definition of both those words. She was grey-haired and wrinkled. She always wore her hair short and she wore wired-rimmed glasses. Good German stock. Even in person, she looked a whole lot like a black-and-white portrait photograph from the 1890s.

So to a 9-year-old, she really was old.

Her husband, Harry, looked downright ancient, like a human artifact. He was actually older than her, by about five years, I think. He kind of scared me, although he gave me no reason to be afraid. He was bald and mostly silent. I think that's because he fathered five children with his wife and he probably had already spoken his piece decades earlier. Talked out. Plus, he seemed like he was perpetually 90 years old (and, in fact, he lived to be something like 96). So he mostly sat in his chair by the window and read Mark Twain. I can't ever remember him being out of his chair, except to struggle to get up and see us off when we left his house. He was the consummate gentleman.

Harry and Grace. Even their names sounded old.

But this piece is mostly about Grace, because, man, how that woman could bake.

Harry Kessler in 1950
And that's probably why I never saw her out of her impossibly tiny house. She was forever in the kitchen. Anytime you dropped by, she would be caught somewhere between her stove and her countertop, always wearing an apron that sporadically puffed gentle airballs of flour whenever she slapped her hands against her sides (I think she marked her territory with flour), baking breads and pies. She even made her own doughnuts, for crying out loud. Who does that on purpose?

But Christmastime was clearly her time. And the week before Christmas sent her into overdrive. I mean, she was baking not only for herself, but for the families of her five children. And probably for the neighbors as well. And maybe the church.

At any rate, there were cookie tins all over the place. She made those famous paper-thin Moravian sugar cookies and even thinner gingerbread cookies. She was Mrs. Hanes before there was a Mrs. Hanes. She also made Moravian sugar cakes, which is a tedious, time-consuming process as the yeast in the potato dough rises. But I think she enjoyed every minute of it. I'm sure she probably made something else while waiting for the dough to rise. Dinner, perhaps.

She made tollhouse cookies from her own recipe and not from the NestlĂ© chocolate morsel package. Those were my favorite, and thankfully, my mom — a decent baker in her own right — got the recipe. To this day, tollhouse cookies evoke images of Christmas, my grandmother and my mom.

There were other types of cookies, of course. Some had nuts in them, others were topped with cherries from her cherry trees. Some had colored icing on them while others had sprinkles or green- and red-colored sugar granules that actually glittered.

The Wehrles and Kesslers at Christmas dinner, circa 1960
She did all of this in an abbreviated kitchen in a barely elbow-room-sized house. I think she had a gas oven, but it certainly wasn't meant for major productions. I don't know how she did it. The house wasn't even big enough for a Christmas tree.

But we did have Christmas candles as the table centerpiece.

I wish I could describe how the place smelled. It would be easy to say the house smelled delightfully like a bakery (well, it did), but that seems somehow inadequate. That description doesn't take in the other ingredients that go with baking — the investment of time, the stress, the fun, and mostly, the love. You know there was love there. And maybe that's it. Maybe the house smelled like love.

The Kesslers are long gone now. Gone for decades, in fact. I wish I had them back, so I could have adult conversations with them, sitting around the table with another batch of tollhouse cookies at my fingertips.


Merry Christmas.

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