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Still baking with Mrs. Seaton—even if Mom isn't

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Still baking with Mrs. Seaton—even if Mom isn't

It was a messy, all-day project
Still baking with Mrs. Seaton—even if Mom isn't
A finished batch of Mrs. Seaton's cookies, right, and the author ready to lend Mom a hand.
Photographer: Photos courtesy Karen Bjornland

When I tell my mother I’m making Christmas cookies, she just laughs.

My mom is an 87-year-old Florida snowbird. She celebrates the holiday season by kicking around in a swimming pool or lounging by the ocean.

But back in the 1950s and ’60s, when Mom was a young mother, she and I made Christmas cookies together.

It was a messy, all-day project. In the morning, after a crackling bowl of Cocoa Krispies, I would follow her downstairs, past the rumbling furnace, into the darkest corner of the basement. Mom would yank on a string that dangled from the low ceiling, and the light from the bare bulb would illuminate a wooden shelf of ghostly shapes swathed in old plastic tablecloths.

“There it is, the Mixmaster,” I would announce with excitement, and she would unwrap this rarely used kitchen appliance and carry it upstairs. For me, this annual excavation was like digging up King Tut.

Back then, a Sunbeam Mixmaster was a big, bad white metal mixing machine with a black dial, a black base and a long thick cord.

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As you turned the dial, the beaters would whir faster and faster, until all you could see was vibrating blurry blobs. On a low speed, the Mixmaster purred. At high speed, it growled like an angry tiger.

“Be careful. Keep your fingers out of the bowl. And don’t stick the spatula in the beaters,” Mom would warn.

Mom got the mixer as a wedding present in 1952, but by 1960, about the time I was old enough to help with the cookies, the “Sunbeam” label was worn off and the mixing bowl had broken. Mom improvised with a white punch bowl marked with the words “Tom and Jerry” in red-and-green letters. No, these weren’t the animated cat and mouse characters but the name of a popular holiday cocktail made with frothy egg whites, brandy and rum. Unfortunately, the Tom and Jerry bowl was a misfit. When it was packed with flour and butter and eggs, it swayed like a drunken sailor as it went round and round.

After a few years, Mom replaced the glass bowl with a metal bowl that didn’t wobble. I was 12 or 13 by then, and was sneaking Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling “Valley of the Dolls” out of Mom’s underwear drawer and reading it before she came home from work. But that’s another story.

Our Christmas cookie recipe, which she had ripped from the Ladies Home Journal while at the dentist’s office, was “Mrs. Seaton’s Prize-winning Cookies,” and it was pasted with her favorite recipes in a notebook with a yellow contact paper cover.

Mrs. Seaton believed in Big Bang Baking. With her recipe, which featured a golden yellow vegetable shortening called Fluffo, Mom mixed up one big wad of dough, divided it and made two kinds of cookies: lemon cutouts, which we decorated; and coconut drop cookies with a piece of maraschino cherry in the center.

On cookie day, it was my job to gather the ingredients for each kind of cookie. Dragging the tubular metal legs of a kitchen chair across the black-and-white linoleum, I stood on the red vinyl seat, reached into the cupboard, and pulled out the small brown bottles of extracts and metal boxes of McCormick and French’s spices. I always sniffed the almond extract before I swirled it into the coconut dough and sampled the maraschino cherries.

As Mom and I mixed, cut, dropped and baked, we listened to albums of Christmas carols by Mitch Miller and the Ray Conniff Singers. It wasn’t Christmas music, but Mom loved to listen to the melting tenor of Mario Lanza. She sighed and rolled her eyes like a love-smitten teenager (how embarrassing!). His “Student Prince” record was her favorite.

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When the cookies were all baked and stacked in their metal tins, I would rip off my oversized apron, run to the living room, open the TV cabinet, flip the knob and wait for the picture to appear so I could watch “The Yogi Bear Show” or “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

While I was happily parked in front of the TV, Mom kept her apron tied around her waist. On December weekends, her work in the kitchen was never-ending. Perhaps that’s why, more than a half century later, she would rather sit in the sunshine under a palm tree. That’s why she chuckles when I tell her I’m writing a story about how we used to make cookies together.

“I do remember those Mrs. Seaton’s cookies,” Mom says. “But I just don’t feel like baking anymore.”

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