I love January. Most notably, I love it for its contrast with December. As much as the holidays bring joy and light and all that other hopeful stuff I’ve gushed about, January brings simplicity—which in this context means a refreshing lack of clutter and excess.
The tree marched out the door in needle dropping indignation; the lights, winking and failing as they were, tangled themselves into a useless ball; the presents integrated themselves into our closets, drawers and bookshelves as if they’d always belonged there, and the bakery, well the bakery warrants further discussion, but suffice it to say that the bakery succeeded in immortalizing itself, as usual, in the cellulite currently erupting on my ass.
Sorry for that.
When it serves me (and only when it serves me), I’m a woman of tradition. By this I mean, I don’t feel inclined to honor “traditions” like the woman’s “traditional” role in the home, or the “tradition” of confining African Americans to the back of the bus. But a tradition that involves flour, butter, and sugar? I’m lined up like a regular soldier of confection, armed with my stainless steel beaters and bowl.
My grandmother baked, and she baked well. Every Christmas: nut roll, strudel, tarts, cookies, cinnamon buns, and something beautiful called a butter ring—all in the tradition of her Bohemian heritage. She did it, so I do it. These kinds of rituals connect us to our heritage, to our family, to ourselves. Food is love, right?
Here are this year’s tarts. A literal sea of them.
And that's not all. Cookies galore.
That's not all either. But that's enough pictures of stuff I don't want to think about anymore.
Since my mother only served these irresistibles on holidays when my grandmother brought them, their limited availability created a sort of feeding frenzy: a dangerous “better get it while you can” mentality. Since my unreasonable teenaged desire to look like I belonged on the cover of Shape magazine left me prone to binge-type behavior anyway, I fell easily into this pattern of eat it all now, eat nothing later. I mean, if you’re going to binge on something, better to make it something good like batches of back-home bohemian bakery!
I’ve long since eliminated (well, almost eliminated) refined sugar from my diet. As a life-long sugar addict, I couldn’t believe how amazing I felt after the first three months without that fine white powder.
An unexpected side-effect of how good I feel off sugar, however, is how bad I feel if I revert to my old sweetened ways. That means by New Year's, I pretty much feel like a sugar-laden, butter fattened, flour dusted bird, waddling around waiting for slaughter at the next big holiday--midwinter's feast, perhaps?
Do it. Put me out of my misery.
Where does that leave the tradition of holiday baking, and my happy tradition of hiding in the closet with secret stashes of it? The easy answer: “everything in moderation” falls a batch of frosted cashew drops short of understanding that this stuff is like crack in a cookie for me. I simply cannot resist the siren call that beckons so alluringly from the line of cookie tins assembled on my December counters.
OK, then the solution is: don’t bake any of it to begin with, right? Easier said than done. I’ve already indoctrinated my family. I've practically handed out free needles! After eliminating refined sugar from our household at other times of the year, is it fair to cut them off just because I can’t control myself?
Besides, what do I tell my deceased grandmother? Do I send a little prayerful message up explaining, “Sorry Grandma, thanks for handing down your great-grandmother’s recipes, but I’m too much of a junkie to tolerate them, so unfortunately for you, my children, and my children’s children, the bohemian bakery buck stops here.”
I know I’m not the first to find conflict between family cooking traditions and health. How do you honor both?
In my annoying way, I’m going to answer that: compromise, right? I suppose I will work on that for next year (which is how long it will take me to disappear the evidence of this year’s debauchery).
In the meantime, the code word for why I love January is, "simplicity," but it actually means: "cookie rehab." If the holidays amount to a period of excess and enslavement to that fine white powder, then January offers respite in the purge. The purge of holiday stuff, holiday obligations, and most importantly, holiday baking (figuratively, of course!).