Sugar, icing and everything nice

Janell Butler Wojtowicz, born and raised on an Iowa farm, was one of those kids who loved to write the dreaded “What I did on summer vacation” essay. She wrote stories for her own enjoyment, including a short story about a teenage drug addict—something of which she knew absolutely nothing about. Her cousin, with a flair for detail, illustrated the cover using Halloween orange paper featuring a gruesome graphic hypodermic needle.

Christmas cookies 2My mother, Shirley, lived in the era when a woman’s career of choice (or necessity) was a stay-at-home mom. Add the setting—an Iowa farm in the 1960s and 1970s—and you have my childhood.

My mother would be up at dawn every morning fixing breakfast for my father, my brother and me. As soon as the breakfast dishes were done, she started work on dinner. As soon as the dinner dishes were done, she began prep for supper. Added to that were seasonal mid-afternoon lunches for the hired help baling hay and harvesting crops.

To meet the culinary needs of her farm family, my mother had scads of cookbooks: hardbound, soft cover, magazines, church and community organization publications. She had two recipe boxes with handwritten recipes and newspaper clippings from a host of cooks. She developed and adapted her own recipes—most in her head by trial and error. One recipe stands out because it meant two things: I got to bake hands-on with my mother and it was Christmas.

A Sweet Back Story

My most treasured recipe is for sugar cookies. It was handed down from Bertha Knutson, the elderly pastor’s wife at the small town Baptist church that my family founded in the 1940s. It’s the church where I gave my heart to Jesus Christ and was baptized. I have dim memories of Mrs. Knutson: white hair pulled back, simple black dress, matronly figure. Her husband, George, was near retirement when he was called to our church in the 1960s.

We usually made Bertha’s sugar cookies just at Christmas, which is what made the experience special. Mom had old-fashioned aluminum cookie cutters of a Christmas tree, star and bell. The cookies were frosted with thin white icing that dried in a smooth almost translucent layer. Red and green sugar sprinkles