Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.

I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.

Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.

Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.

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Wallace Stevens: Coconut Caramel Graham Cookies

If cookies were a literary genre, I suspect they’d be the romance novel. Neither one gets much respect in highbrow circles, but both have a dedicated, verging-on-rabid following. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a rainy Sunday afternoon – and it’s dangerously easy to consume several in one sitting.

But unlike romances, with their embossed and be-Fabio’ed covers, cookies aren’t winning any beauty contests. They’re usually not much to look at, which is one reason why they’re more often found in our home kitchens than on restaurant menus. They’re homely in every sense.

If you had met him on the street, you might have thought Wallace Stevens was similarly unremarkable. Every day for over 40 years, he got up, got dressed, and commuted to his achingly normal day job at a Connecticut insurance agency (Kafka also worked in insurance, which makes you wonder just what goes on over there). His humdrum evening routine consisted of eating a cookie while reading the paper. He didn’t publish his first poem until he was 35, and even after he won the Pulitzer, he still went to the office every day, and ate a cookie every night.

No other writer talks about cookies as much as Stevens does. Elsie, his wife, always seemed to have a batch baking; “I can almost smell them,” Stevens wrote in his letters. He brought them on picnics, and gave boxes of them away as Christmas gifts. Even Stevens’ daughter associated  with cookies; when he was away on business, she would put a cookie by his place at the table, waiting for him to come home.

Stories like that remind me why cookies, despite their homely status, are so beloved: They tie in to our most cherished memories, and remind us of those little moments that make life worth living. Stevens knew that power well. In 1948, after returning from a trip to New York with Elsie, he wrote, “We went into the kitchen, sat there drinking milk and eating cookies. … This is not much. Yet it is a little in spite of everything.”

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