Butter cookies that take me back to when I was poor and food was love

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Butter cookies from Roswell B. Mason Elementary School in Chicago. | Photo by John W. Fountain

The butter cookies disintegrated into sweet nothingness inside my mouth, opening the door to yesterday’s scents and savory foods that filled my childhood with ingredients that time and seasons perhaps have lost.

I ordered the cookies — three trays full (enough for my students) — from a lady I know. Miss Mary, I’ll call her, unwilling to divulge the full identity of my sweet supplier for completely selfish reasons.


The cookies — a specialty of the plump cafeteria ladies at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the West Side — take me back. Back to when I was poor and seldom able to afford the 5-cent cookie to go with my free lunch.

Back to the concrete playground and basketball court, where the scent of the palm-sized morsels baking wafted in the school-day morning air. Back to K-Town and the cacophony of excited children’s voices as my cousins and I rounded the corner onto 16th and Komensky on those days when we came home for lunch.

We sniffed at the air, like Mr. Newell’s hound dog “Spot,” to see if we could guess what Aunt Mary had cooked.

“Sloppy Joes!” we yelled as we dashed up the stairs and to Aunt Mary’s kitchen table but not before washing our hands. And not a taste of food until the dozen or more of us had said grace in unison.

“Amen…” We lifted the homemade Joes, which oozed. We gulped them down as if they were oxygen. We rinsed the mouthfuls of Sloppy Joes and fries with red Kool-Aid, licking our fingers in between.

I miss Aunt Mary’s cooking, her sugary Kool-Aid. I miss her sweet dinner rolls and German chocolate cake adorned with perfect caramel-complected coconut-filled frosting and topped with fresh pecan halves. I miss her white coconut cake that stood gloriously to the last bite.

I miss those times… Times when our poverty could be vanquished instantly by a mother’s — or father’s — abilities to transform the simplest or most meager ingredients into culinary delights that seemed to touch the soul.

A time when troubles or tears could be soothed by good home cooking birthed and perfected over seasons past with family recipes in loving hands that nourished, comforted and sustained generations.

A time when food was love. And love was a dish — eternally seasoned with the memories of those who baked or boiled, smoked or grilled or fried. Forever stamped upon our palates, upon our souls and minds, even as time and life evaporate like wisps of water in a saucepan.

Memories: Like Mama’s garlic fried chicken, its scent flowing like a river down the stairs of our apartment into the street and tantalizing the whole block. Or my stepfather’s barbecue, saturated in smoke and sanctified upon a garbage barrel-converted grill.

Like Aunt Scopie’s 7-Up cake and Grandmother’s peach cobbler, which I watched her knead and roll, sprinkling in flour until it was perfect. Then Grandmother cut some of the dough into strips and carefully laid them crisscross style upon her cinnamon sauce filled with fresh peaches on a doughy bed.

Grandmother was surgeon-like in layering her cobbler and as watchful over it while it baked as a lioness over her cubs. She was the same about her Thanksgiving dressing, stirring a mix of cornbread, sage, chicken broth and seasonings. A spoonful, even before it was cooked, was a treat for me as a little boy.

Their cooking was never a laborious endeavor from what I could see. Even as Mama sometimes managed a meager dinner of fried potato patties.

The scent of frying potatoes and onions still takes me back.

Just like Miss Mary’s homemade butter cookies.

Email: Author@Johnwfountain.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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