Martha’s Gourd-eous Cookies! – Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing! -151 eggs, 114 3/4 cups of sugar, 117 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 139 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 89 recipes to go!

December 8, 2010

Martha's Pumpkin Cookie with Brown Butter Icing

André's Pumpkin Cookie with Brown Butter Icing

It was Thanksgiving and the usual guests were coming over to our house for the annual feast. My partner’s mom and brother were there as well as our close friend, Charla. It was a small but pleasant gathering of folks. I wanted to make a cookie for the occasion because people expect me to make cookies for just about any occasion these days. Looking through Martha’s book I landed on the perfect recipe for the festive Fall season- Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing. These were in the Caky and Tender section of Martha’s book and I can attest that they are indeed quite caky and tender.

They’re essentially tiny pumpkin cakes, much like the consistency of a whoopie pie or muffin top. Moist and sweet with plenty of pumpkin flavor and lots of traditional holiday spices. The real surprise is the brown butter icing, though. Butter is rendered down until all of the fat solids turn a light amber color. This is combined with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract to make the icing. Everyone who sampled these asked what flavor of icing was used. Once they found out it was brown butter they all nodded happily surprised. Brown butter is a familiar flavor although not so easy to readily identify.

Even though these were delicious and fairly easy to make, they were quite difficult to store. Because of the icing on top, you really can’t keep them in more than one layer. Martha suggested in her book they could be stacked with parchment between the layers. Sorry Martha, this proved to be a sticky mess. They’re still delicious, though and were a big hit with all who sampled them.

So, here we are in the middle of the festive season. I’m at an age where this time of the year reminds me I am one-half of a childless gay couple. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. My biological clock has never ticked a single tock nor do I feel like I’m missing out on what I assume are the mythical joys of child-rearing.

I recently attended a family-night at my workplace because my friend, Charla and her daughter wanted to take advantage of some of the discounts being offered at the event. Charla’s small granddaughter tagged along and was thrilled to stand in line with the other thirty-to-forty children to have her picture taken with Santa. I have to hand it to my employer. They found a really terrific looking guy to play Santa. He was the perfect weight and demeanor with a full head of thick platinum white hair and a long and nicely groomed beard. As I stood aside admiring him I remarked that he was a really good looking Santa. The parents with small children standing next to me shot me a look of anger and disgust. I, however, was oblivious to any faux pas I may have uttered. A sympathetic co-worker leaned over and told me there is only one Santa so of course he looked good. Oops. I then realized I had inadvertently dispelled the myth of Santa being a real gentleman who lives in the North Pole with his wife, reindeer and a slew of elven indentured servants.

I felt like apologizing to every parent in the room. “I am so sorry. Please forgive me.” -I’d say.  “I’m one-half of a childless gay couple. I shouldn’t even be here. For what it’s worth, I love Santa, too!”

Ironically, back in the late eighties I landed a temporary holiday job at Godchaux’s (pronounced GOD-CHAWS) Department Store in Baton Rouge, LA. Godchaux’s, at the time, had the distinction of holding the world’s record for being the longest department store in the world. It stretched almost a quarter of a mile from end to end and filled over three city blocks.  I was to be their Santa Claus. Their Human Resources department liked the fact that I worked in children’s theatre and even though I was still in my teens I was deemed a suitable (pun intended) Santa. The pay was quite good considering all I had to do was sit, smile and wave while a string of children lined up to tell me what they wanted for Christmas.

Godchaux’s was owned by two brothers, the Sternbergs. They were both pleasant enough. The eldest brother, Josef always had a warm smile and a kind word. The younger brother, Hans was more distant but always impeccably groomed. Their ancient mother, Ilsa  haunted the sales floor. She was a bit of a dragon-lady spitting fiery criticisms at employees in her crisp, clipped German dialect instilling fear and dread in the hearts of the family’s employees with each syllable uttered.

I have to admit. I was a good looking Santa. The suit was made from beautiful red velvet with lovely embroidery in shimmering gold silk. The Cap  and suit was trimmed with genuine white rabbit’s fur and the leather and brass belt held the large fat suit belly in place underneath the coat. The beard, mustache and wig were expertly crafted. In fact, the mustache had to be glued into place before the beard and wig could be donned. I also had two eyebrows that were glued over my own so they matched the snowy white beard. Non-matching eyebrows are a dead giveaway for young kids that doubt Santa’s authenticity.  A little rouge on the cheeks and a pair of golden wire-rimmed spectacles completed the illusion. As far as Santa drag goes, I have to admit I made one damn good, merry, old elf. Well, as merry as one could be in a itchy, sweltering hot costume.

My days as Santa went like this. I clocked in with thirty minutes to change into the costume. I’d meet a security person at the employee cafeteria who’d walk me down to Santa’s throne which for some reason was adjacent to women’s lingerie. Security would leave me in the hands of the photographer/elf, a moody female teenage relative of the Sternbergs who’d been told she needed to appreciate the family business. Apparently the best way for her to do this was to throw on a felted tunic and a jingling pointy hat and sell ‘Photos with Santa’ to all the happy goyim for their facacta holiday.

Security would fetch me after a hour and a half on the throne for a thirty-minute cool-down break and then I’d be back for another hour and a half. I would have a hour for lunch followed by three more shifts. I was the store’s only Santa so I couldn’t get sick and I’d have to work from open to close on weekends. It was actually quite exhausting.

During the doldrums of the day, particularly weekdays when business slowed to a standstill, I’d walk over to cosmetics and sit at the large white grand piano and play Christmas music. The workers loved it and would sing along. Soon management took notice and had me spend an entire shift each day doing just that- playing Christmas carols for employees and shoppers while everyone sang along. Being a store Santa is a bit like being a professional stripper. Anyone can “HO!” but to be really successful you’ve got to know how to work the crowd.

The week before Christmas I was on my lunch break. I sat in the employee cafeteria in my t-shirt and fat suit. The coat hung on the back of the chair to air out. The beard and wig were air-drying draped across the bench behind me. I sat with my glued-on mustache and eyebrows, my eyes were closed and a tiny styrofoam cup of coffee was clutched between my hands. I basked in the relief of the quiet and cool air when the silence was broken by a screech from across the room.


My eyes opened and fixed on the tiny crooked figure that wobbled fiercely towards me. It was Ilsa Sternberg, the maniacal matriarch of yule tide fear.

“Vat do you think you ah doo-ink?!” – she yelled in her best Bavarian bravado.

“Zere ist a lein fohming filled vith children who vant to see Santa! And you ah up he-yuh filling your gullet witz mein coffee! Nein! Nein! Nein! Geet dressed! Geet down zere! Schnell!” – The waddle under her chin shook with each word like an angry rabid hen.

Embarrassed, I quickly put myself together and as I buckled my belt and grabbed by cap, Ilsa clutched my arm and began dragging me out of the cafeteria and through the store. She cursed in German all the way down to the slew of children and parents patiently waiting for Santa among the sea of bras, panties and other festive unmentionables. As soon as Ilsa was within ear’s reach of the children, her tone changed to a kind, elderly, German grandmother- “Oh, look children who I found Schneaking around upschtairs! Eets Santa! HooRay! I found him und hees ready to hee-yuh vat you vant for Christmas!”

She had dragged me by the arm all the way from upstairs to the throngs of children below and like a bloodhound having found an injured bunny, she threw be before them as if to say, Here! Do with him as you will.

Ilsa made one unfortunate oversight, though. Yes, she’d grabbed me from my break but she left her niece, my elf assistant upstairs. There was no one to take the photos. Ilsa decided she would do this herself. I quickly showed her how to load the camera and how to ring up the customers- a confusing sight for all the kids in line. Ilsa did not have the temperament to work with cameras, customers, or children but she gave it her best shot for the next thirty minutes.

Parents would place their screaming child on my lap and Ilsa would begin comforting them loudly- “Vie ah you Schkreeming!? You ah in da prezents ov Santa! Heez going to think you ah very Naughty and he’ll feel your schtockings full of coal, he vill!” If Ilsa’s threats didn’t make them stop crying she’d then direct her anger at the parents. “Vee have a lot ov uhzer children who vant to see Santa. If zey don’t schtop crying soon you’re just going to have to try again next yee-uh!”

Finally the Sternberg niece/ elf showed up and after a few not so nice words exchanged in German, we were able to proceed with a kinder, gentler, and far saner version of Christmas.

Later that evening as the crowds died down to a trickle of shoppers here and there, the eldest Sternberg son, Josef paid me a visit. He’d heard about what happened earlier with his mother’s irrational antics. He apologized with a smile and a pat on the back. He mentioned that he’d heard me play the piano for the shoppers and their kids and wanted to know if I could read music. I told him I could. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little piece of folded paper. It was a song, Mein Yiddishe Momme. He asked me if I could play it for him.

We walked down to the piano in cosmetics. His brother, Hans was waiting there with Ilsa. I sat down and began to play. Both Hans and Josef sang to their mother with crackling voices this mournful German song. I could see the tears well in Ilsa’s sagging eyes and thought what a strange sight this must have been to the casual observer. Two elderly gentlemen singing to their even more elderly mother a Jewish song in German accompanied by Santa on a white grand piano in the middle of the cosmetics department. After the song ended there was a smattering of applause from the coworkers and shoppers who’d paused to listen. Hans, Josef and Ilsa embraced each other and then Hans escorted an emotional but grateful Ilsa down the hall.

Josef turned and thanked me for indulging him. He told me his brother and he always sang that song to their mother during the holidays to remind her how much she means to them and it was nice to have accompaniment this year. He acknowledged that most people find his mother abrasive, pushy, and completely oblivious to other’s feelings.

“She’s a tough lady and not everyone’s cup of tea.” – Josef sighed.

“But everything my brother and I are today, everything we have we owe to her. Not many mothers can claim to have given life to their children twice. Mine did. She didn’t do it by being nice. She didn’t do it by saying ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’. She did it by pushing and taking and grabbing and pulling.”

Josef paused to wipe his eyes. I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what he was talking about. He seemed to be just speaking and not particularly interested in whether I was listening or not.

“I’m sorry she was so rude to you today. She wants my brother and I to succeed. If she thinks that means she has to yell at Santa, then she yells at Santa.” – he chuckled.

The store was closed for the day. Josef walked with me all the way up to my changing room. We removed our coats along the way and he rolled up his sleeves after what had been a long and exhausting day. Just before we went our separate ways he shook my hand. I looked down and saw the faint numbers inscribed on his arm, a sad souvenir of a life lived a long time ago. Suddenly everything he’d said made sense.

She’d given her sons life.



10 Responses to “Martha’s Gourd-eous Cookies! – Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing! -151 eggs, 114 3/4 cups of sugar, 117 1/4 sticks of Butter, and 139 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 89 recipes to go!”

  1. Kriesa Says:

    About a month or so ago, someone on my favorite forum posted a link to your blog, and I’ve spent my lunch hours since then catching up. I have to tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I’ve laughed out loud at more than one entry, and teared up over a few, including today’s.

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement and support. As I approach the halfway mark in the seemingly endless baking and blogging, words like yours help keep me motivated. Keep coming back to read more when you can and have a happy holiday season.

  2. Chelsea Says:

    Good one, Andre! Although I’d hazard to guess they all are. I only discovered that you were blogging through your baking on the last cookie! Now I have a butt-load of reading to do! and looking forward to it. You the Man. xxx

    • Awww thanks, Chelsea!
      Some are better than others and some posts are about people you know. (The names have been changed to protect the guilty). Happy Holidays to you and hope you get the card I sent out your way.

  3. Carol Says:

    What a powerful story, Andre. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Tommy Salami Says:

    I always enjoy your posts, but this one is the best of the last few weeks. Very well done.
    So much so that I am afraid to ask if you started smoking again 🙂

  5. Rachael Koske Says:

    I agree that this latest post was among the best. Although you misspelled Goudchaux’s.
    I house-sat for Mary Ann Sternberg, Josef’s widow, right before Philip and I got married in 2002, and I think she might have gotten some lessons in demeanor from her mother-in-law! She was pretty intense, but a very cool lady with an amazing art collection that I never got tired of looking at.

    • Rachael, you’re right. I misspelled Goudchaux’s. How un-Louisiana of me. hehe. Wow! you house sat for Josef’s widow? How cool is that? Josef was always considered the nice one in the family. Sorry to hear his wife wasn’t so much.

      • Rachael Says:

        Oh, it’s not that she was mean, just . . . let’s just say she does not suffer fools! Which is way more interesting than just being “nice”, I think 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: