I was in my early 20s when I first encountered the All-American Cookie. Where I came from, mothers and grandmothers turned their noses disdainfully at a cake that had less than four layers, many of my friends in grade school had hands-on experience with Swiss meringue, and cookies definitely came from a box bought at the grocery store.
My first American cookie experience involved the dough that came from a tube. It did not catch me completely off guard as it followed a gigantic mountain of nachos chips drowned in melted Velveeta cheese, and an odd ritual of passing thin, unfiltered cigarettes from hand to hand, around and around (which I found very unhygienic). I figured I'd roll with the local customs, having accepted a long time before the old adage "When in Rome..." Nachos tasted pretty good, particularly when chased with a sip of beer from a bottle—a deliberate act of defiance, as every single one of my male friends and relatives would shudder at the mere thought of imbibing the amber liquid without the proper glass (emphasis on proper).
Refrigerator cookies in a tube were the cheapest we could find, but once I meandered around bodies sprawled on the floor, squinting to avoid smoke, I stuffed two or three freshly baked cookies in my mouth and threw my head behind in bliss, giggling, convinced that I have figured out the secret of life on Earth. I wish I had thought of writing it all down, as the euphoria dissipated by the morning, and the revolutionary Eureka! moment vanished.
I learned in time that it was not a weird version of Marlboros that we were passing around, that nachos tasted much better with real cheese, and that cookies were a fool-proof way to anyone's heart. I could smoothly adjust to the cultural shock as I did not have my Serbian matriarchs breathing down my neck and admonishing me for taking the easy way out.
My sister-in-law smirked disgustedly at perfectly balanced billowy whites and creamy yellows in my Iles Flotantes, but could not stop smiling when I made a batch of peanut butter cookies. I spent hours roasting and grinding hazelnuts, mixing them in a fragrant dough, cutting out tiny one-inch circles, baking them, making small sandwiches with crème anglaise in the middle and dipping them in chocolate ganache, only to hear some of my co-workers complain that my petit-fores were too sweet. Next time I brought oatmeal raisin cookies to work, and everyone thought I could part Lake Michigan.
Once I became a mother, I surrendered to the unbeatable appeal of kitschy and gawdy birthday cakes my daughters wanted as they went beautifully along the pink and purple sequined dresses and feathered tutus they ogled whenever we went shopping. It's what's on the outside that counted, and again I rolled with the accepted, but feeling just a little bit guilty when I cut through the cake heavily topped with unbearably sweet turquoise or fuchsia frosting that clung to my palate, as I heard Mother's tsk, tsk, tsk in my head and remembered masterfully assembled delectable tortes of my youth.
Chocolate chip cookies were the family favorites, but I started making sugar cookies just because I knew my girls would be happy: pink and red for Valentine's Day, brown and orange for Halloween, red, white, and green for Christmas. That it was less of an effort than making crepes or a cake with summer fruit—desserts that Mother would declare utterly pedestrian and not worthy of guests—was just a bonus for which I was immensely thankful. After all, Mother was not in the kitchen with me.
And then I started reading food blogs, and I could not stop. I discovered people who could weave magic with their words, people who captured a perfect moment with their camera, people who were on "per tu" with French cooking, and people who made stunning, perfectly decorated cookies. I was in awe as I pored through the posts, admiring the patience, creativity, and dexterity of cookie-makers, envious of their skill and artistry.
I don't consider myself an accomplished baker, and I am sure Mother would agree. Yeast does not scare me any more, and I don't think twice about pulling my 25-pound bag of Five Roses flour out of the pantry to play with a cake or two. But decorated cookies were one of last culinary bastions I was determined to conquer. And conquer them I did, indeed! I spent days analyzing, reading, listening, and watching before I even pulled the butter out to soften. I set my iPhone alarm to go off every minute when the cookies were in the oven, just to monitor their progress and attain that perfect hue of barely golden edges. I stayed up until way past the witching hour to finish decorating them, feeling like Bugs Bunny trying in vain to get rid of colorful swirling circles in front of my eyes. (You know the cartoon I'm talking about, right?)
I am sure that skinny, unfiltered, fragrant cigarettes won't make an appearance at my house any time soon, and neither will the mounds of Velveeta-smothered nacho chips. As for the cookies, I have to say that I have come a long way since the cheap, refrigerated dough version. I tasted them, bite by delectable bite, and even though the experience did not reveal the secrets of life, I felt at peace with the world around me.