Pick One Quick Tea Cookies

I’m a firm believer in equality—meaning I think health, good fortune, opportunity and talent should be fairly distributed among everyone.  This thinking is kind of a problem when, as we all learn, life isn’t at all fair.  Of course there are the obvious, horrible examples of lives visited by too much tragedy—the segments on the local news that have you gasping with a combination of sympathy, and a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.  But I’m talking about the hogging of success.  Think about it.  Why is it fair for a performer to be a “triple threat?”  Isn’t it enough to be “only” a great singer?  Do you also need to be a wonderful actress and superb dancer?  Or think of Oprah who, after taking home the trophy umpteen times, took herself out of competing in the Daytime Emmys.  That was a classy move and one some other actors and hosts might want to contemplate.  The amassing of accolades becomes unseemly and a little unfair to so many others who are working just as hard.  Sure you could say “may the best woman win” but after you’ve been awarded for doing the same thing more than once isn’t it time to let another best woman win?
It’s just so annoying when the scales seem to be tipped so far away from so many who are deserving.  There should be enough hosannas to go around for everyone.  Like people who are really good at more than one career.  One of my favorite books of the last year, Rules of Civility, was written by the successful founder of a hedge fund who somehow found time to write a best-selling novel during his off-hours.  Are you kidding me?  If I hadn’t liked the book so much and if he hadn’t been wonderfully charming and self-deprecating when I heard him interviewed, I would hate him.  But you get my point.  I think the childhood instruction to “just take one” should apply to adults and success.  Pick your one thing and leave some opportunity for the rest of the world.

This psychic trip down injustice lane came to the forefront of my brain most recently when I heard that Elizabeth Gilbert, she of the insanely successful Eat Pray Love, had published a story-filled cookbook.  I’m sorry, it’s not enough that her book was on the bestseller list for years and Julia Roberts played her in the screen adaptation, but she also needs to be a great cook?!  Back off lady!  But still, I had to read it.
Well, it turns out I was kind of wrong.  She had unearthed a cookbook slash memoir written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter, (aka “Gima” to her family) a food writer for a Philadelphia newspaper in the 1940s who published it in 1947.  She’d found it only recently and, thinking that “Gima” had a before-her-time take on cooking and entertaining, Elizabeth decided to “present” it.  Yes, I take issue with the word “presenting.”  It sounds like she’s PT Barnum or something.  But from a publishing/business standpoint I can understand using her name in any way conceivable hoping her golden light will shine on whatever project she is affiliated with. 

While I was reading the book I kept thinking about Katharine Hepburn for some reason.  Maybe because of The Philadelphia Story?  But I had her face in my head the whole time while paging through the story about a dinner party gone haywire after the guest of honor showed up late, the electricity went out and the help got sick, only to be saved by a rousing game of craps played on the living room floor in the dark.  The book is totally charming and evokes the author’s life in a refreshing, honest and funny way.  It’s a breezy narrative peppered with recipes buried in the text.  In a sense, it assumes the reader knows her way around the kitchen, which is a fair assumption if you were a woman in the 1940’s I suppose.  Casual mentions of change in financial fortune don’t depress but just enhance the sense that Gima rolled with the punches while maintaining a really high level of cooking and hospitality.  Leftovers are used creatively, options for less expensive substitutes are offered, all while a certain kind of life is presented: snapshots of afternoons spent on “a cheap hired motorboat” with weekend guests, BLTs, pie and coffee; specific cocktails are included in menu planning (martinis with Indian food?  Of course!); every meal starts with an appetizer and ends with dessert—there is no skimping.  But what I found fascinating was how contemporary the message ultimately is.  Sure there are recipes I would never want to make, (calf’s tongue hash anyone?) but they are of a time.  And in fact, Gima’s forays into international cuisines seem advanced for the early days after World War II. 
Two of my favorite moments involve smoking and drinking.  While sharing the joy of bread making with her reader, Gima says, “Now relax.  Sit down, light a cigarette…” while we wait for the dough to rise.  After the appointed passage of time she says, “Is your cigarette finished?  Let’s go.  This is fun.”  I love that.  And although instructing anyone to smoke is a terrible idea, I appreciate her tone.  Same goes for her chapter on cocktails.  She acknowledges that although tending the household bar is usually a man’s job, “when the hostess lives alone and likes it…" "any halfway intelligent woman should be able to produce a drinkable cocktail...." I think that is incredibly modern thinking and obviously speaks to me personally.

But here's the catch. Although I really enjoyed reading At Home on the Range, the one recipe I tried was a disappointment.  You see, at the end of the book Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled some of the recipes from the narrative and “presented” them in today’s standard recipe format.  "Quick Tea Cookies" caught my eye since I am a tea drinker and they seemed easy and yielded only 8-10, no temptation hanging around the house.  But I needn't have worried about being tempted.  Okay, hot out of the oven and dipped in tea they weren't half bad.  But as my sister said in response to that statement after taking a bite an hour later and making a displeased face, "what isn't?"  So it looks like the fates were fair in this case--Ms. Gilbert's uber-skills are limited to one thing.  Or so I choose to believe.   But still, my cookies are better than hers and the next time I’m thinking of making some to go with my tea I’ll opt for my favorite Orange Sablés, sink into my favorite chair and read more about Gima. 
Pick One Quick Tea Cookies
from At Home on the Range, Elizabeth Gilbert, Margaret Yardley Potter 2012
1 Tablespoon brown sugar + extra for sprinkling
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, well-beaten
1/2 cup flour, sifted
1 pinch of salt
1 pinch ground cinnamon
2 pinches ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
8-10 walnut halves or almond slices (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Grease a medium cookie sheet and set aside.

Using a hand-held mixer or elbow grease and a spoon, cream the brown sugar and butter together until smooth. 

Add the egg, flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Beat well until smooth.  If using caraway seeds, stir them in now.

Drop by rounded teaspoon or use small, two-teaspoon ice cream scoop, sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of brown sugar.  If desired, place a half-walnut or sliced blanched almond on top of each cookie before baking.
Bake for 8 minutes.  Cookies will be pale, puffy and cake-like.

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