Cookies, Chaos, and Home – by Claudia Aulum

Today’s post was written by my dear friend, Claudia Aulum, an author, memoirist, and freelance writer who lives in Ketchum, Idaho. Her story of making her grandmother’s cookies every Advent speaks to how holiday traditions are often much more than they seem.

Cookies, Chaos, and Home by Claudia Aulum

The dough usually comes out too wet or too crumbly. Never just right. Then I struggle to roll the imperfect brown mass into a smooth, even layer, 1/8-inch thick. In the past, I tried using fancy cookie cutter shapes like reindeers and angels — but invariably, I’d lose antlers, wings, and heads in the process of getting the cookies onto the baking sheet. To minimize amputations, I just stick to hearts and stars now.

Even so, the ordeal takes hours and always ends with me swearing I’ll never make them again. But I do, every Christmas. Like my mother and grandmother before me. And my great-grandmother, Kleine Oma, from whom the recipe for Braune Pfeffernüsse originated. Every year, I wonder how she pulled it off in her late-1800s kitchen.

A page from Kleine Oma’s handwritten cookbook, which her daughter (my grandmother)
somehow spirited across the border during their escape from East Germany

My versions of her creation are often misshapen or too thick. Sometimes they end up with odd streaks running through them. But this ritual, I’ve realized, is not about the outcome. If they were easy to make, they’d be just another cookie. The act of making them wouldn’t be important. Nor, I believe, would they taste as good. And nothing tastes more like Christmas to me than Braune Pfeffernüsse.

For all the trouble, they’re unassuming cookies, brown and unadorned. But like brown-paper packages, they are irresistible. The recipe seems simple at first glance: only six ingredients combined in a straightforward way. But two of the key ingredients — beet syrup and potash — are hard to find.[1] I usually begin hunting them down online from German grocery suppliers at the beginning of November.

For my grandmother, procuring the ingredients was a bit more complicated. During the war and in the post-war years, when just about everything was scarce in their German town, her preparation would begin months before Christmas. She had to barter for the extra flour, sugar, and butter she’d need. In the early fall, she and the children (my mother, the eldest) would scour the fields after the harvest to gather stray sugar beets left behind by the farmers; then clean, peel, chop, and boil the beets for hours in the giant laundry cauldrons in the basement (around fifteen pounds of beets to produce enough of the of syrup). The final step: straining the juice from the pulp, boiling it down for another day, stirring frequently to make sure the syrup didn’t burn.

Then two days of baking to produce some 400 cookies. I picture my grandmother, calm and steely in the eye of the storm. While the world around them was in chaos, she was determined to give her five children some sense of normalcy at Christmas. Or perhaps she did it to reassure herself that she still had control — in this case, over a small, dearly held tradition. More than 70 million dead in the war, Germany guilty of horrific crimes, and their country in ruins. Borders were redrawn (their town, unfortunately, ended up on the East German/Russian side), and waves of refugees fled westward. Through it all, the woman who would years later play an important role in my upbringing, still managed to make these cookies every Christmas. I’m told she missed only one year: when they were in the refugee camp, after having escaped on foot across the border from East Germany to West in the early ‘50s.

My rendition of Kleine Oma’s recipe. Plain cookies, perfect Meissen porcelain

“Why are you making so many cookies?” my husband asked me a few weeks ago. He had a point — this will be the first time in our 17 years of marriage that none of our children will be home for Christmas.

“Because I have to,” I said without hesitation. Then added by way of justification, “I’m going to send tins to the kids and give the cookies as gifts.” But that was only half true.

Really, I was doing it for me. Because 2021 has nearly brought me to my knees.

It’s not just the pandemic, or that the whole world seems to be on edge. Or the vitriol that has taken over our national dialogue. Or that I wonder whether our country will still be a democracy in a few years; and how many of us, in the not-too-distant future, might become climate refugees or political refugees. The existential dread can feel overwhelming.

This is not to say that the year has been all bad. Most of our loved ones have, so far, emerged largely unscathed from the pandemic. I am moved to tears by the acts of kindness and generosity I witness and read about daily. And there have been personal accomplishments, too — my first book was published a few months ago, a project I was blessed to participate in.

Yet this was also the year I learned by chance that my mother (who has only debts) disinherited me. I wasn’t meant to know until after she died that she had made a new will, according to which I no longer exist. But she is alive and well, now living in the assisted living facility I moved her to this summer after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer live on her own. A four-month process that required orchestrating a dozen or so medical visits, sorting through and packing up her home (which I couldn’t have done without the help of my friend Jan!), and jumping through all the logistical and bureaucratic hoops triggered by a major life change.

My mother tells me she doesn’t remember why she disowned me.

So I found myself entering this season of cheer feeling bruised, exhausted, and disoriented. More than ever, I needed to lean on a comforting and familiar thread that I could trace beyond my mother.

Like Braune Pfeffernüsse, the long-standing family tradition of Advent has been a constant in my life, accompanying me in my eight moves since college (two of them transatlantic), three marriages, and several career changes. I was not raised in any religion, but I’m religious about celebrating Advent on the four Sundays before Christmas. For an hour on Sunday evening, we gather in the living room by the fire, family and friends (whoever happens to be around) flopped on the sofa and in chairs, the advent wreath with four red candles before us. We dim the lights and light candles all around.

With each successive Sunday, we light one more candle on the wreath. And while listening to classical holiday music, we nibble on Braune Pfeffernüsse and other German Christmas goodies that go back to my childhood—marzipan from Lübeck, Lebkuchen (spice cakes) from Nürnberg, and Baumkuchen (tree cake). Sometimes we read stories aloud, but mostly we just relax, savoring the hour of peace. Controversy, Covid, and the chaos of the world, all forgotten.

For now, we are together, and we are home. And in this moment, all is well.

Advent evening

[1] Yes, potash (a version of it) is also used for cooking. It’s not just for fertilizer.

Claudia Aulum has lived in many places and traveled extensively. She moved from Switzerland to Ketchum, Idaho, twenty-four years ago. Still, in her heart, Hamburg, Germany, is always home. Claudia is the coauthor of More To Life Than More.  For more information or to contact her directly, visit her on LinkedIn.

© Claudia Aulum 2021

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