Holiday prep on the farm always involved the kitchen. And when you live twenty-one miles from the nearest grocer, you find stockpiling sugar, flour, and spices as traditional as evergreen, tinsel, and holly. Mama had lived through the depression, so our farmhouse had little chance of scarcity, especially during this time of year. Almost 600 square feet of its eighteen-hundred was consigned to food preparation; that didn’t include the dirt cellar that held canned goods like pickled peaches.
The kitchen was an ample eat-in space with a rectangular center table and an assortment of cabinets, counters, and pie safes for storage. What my grandmother had called the washroom, we called the pantry, as its only laundry items were a white Maytag and a box of Tide powder. Shelves and counter space lined the pantry, which proved perfect for storing farm commodity surplus and baking pans too large for daily use.
The enclosed back porch had a boot jack by the back door and a rug for daddy to leave anything that might “track into the house.” The space was built for usefulness and included a chest freezer and yet another pie safe. Although we never kept pies in it, this cupboard proved the perfect cache for an assortment of jars, lids, and canning paraphernalia.
Rather than “girl’s in white dresses with blue satin sashes” or “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,” my favorite things included Snowball cookies at Christmas. Similar to a traditional Mexican wedding cookie, our recipe finished by rolling in icing and coconut. Mama always included me in the process, so I seemed to understand instructions like “cream the butter and add the sugar” from the womb. Our handwritten recipe cards never needed such details.
Since the 1960s put butter on the naughty list, Mama began substituting margarine in all her recipes. I think oleo was only one molecule off the formula for plastic, but it was the first ingredient in our Snowballs. Mama creamed in powdered sugar and “Old Mexico” vanilla before splashing in a teaspoon or so of water until the mixture crumbled just right. With only a nod to spoons and cups, Mama portioned out the flour from the metal canister on our Formica countertop and then threw in a generous amount of hand-chopped pecans, which she’d shelled from our neighbor’s tree.
Mama had large hands, the kind that was good for both holding and stirring, and I grew up watching her pat faces and biscuits with the same care. She was always funny about flour, insisting that, once old, it affected the taste of any recipe. She smelled her ingredients as she scooped them and instantly recognized any sour or musty odor. Mama promptly dumped inferior product in the pasture for the wind and the birds.
Although the cookies could be crescent-shaped, ours were always round. Mama said it was because “that was the shape of a snowball,” but now I know that circular treats were easier for my hands. Once the cookies were in the oven, I made the sticky icing of milk and powdered sugar. Meanwhile, Mama spread an additional baking sheet with grated coconut, so once the Snowballs baked, we could begin our assembly line of dipping and dusting. Only about half of the batch ever made it into our cookie tin, as I promptly ate any the irregulars. Our recipe always contained a lot of those.
Once I had my own family, I asked Mama for the recipe, and it took her a while to get it back to me. She said the measurements had been hard to pin down and then cautioned me to judge how the dough felt in my hand rather than exacting the ingredient amounts. I found this difficult since my childhood memories are often more like powdered sugar than concrete facts. In any case, here’s Mama’s recipe for Snowballs. I hope you’ll make it part of your family tradition.
1 cup oleo
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon water
1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups coconut
Make into balls, then bake at 300* for 20 minutes. (Not brown when done).
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
½ cup milk
After baking and cooling, dip in icing, then in coconut.
Please note that I have given you more instructions than Mama wrote down. Her copy left out the word “cup,” leaving us to guess 1/4 of what for the powdered sugar. She also consistently gave the word “icing” an extra “e.” I noticed that Mama didn’t say how many these would make. As long as I was in the house, we never knew precisely how many would be left.