This time of year – Halloween in particular – sparks memories of a more innocent time. In the trick-or-treat years of my day, costumes were homemade from whatever scraps of clothing, cardboard, or construction paper could be found lying around the house. Pumpkins became Jack O’ Lanterns using a dark pencil and a sharp kitchen blade – no “carving kits” to speak of – easy faces and single candles, lit and placed on the front porch to greet the neighborhood each night. Halloween treats were simple and seasonal (Wax Lips! Candy Cigarettes!) collected and piled high in bright orange plastic pumpkins. “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” was thirty minutes of can’t-miss television.
If I’m to put one Halloween memory at the top of my list however, no recollection touches my soul quite like my mom’s “pumpkin cookies”. These colorful characters go straight to my heart every year I bake up another batch. Behind those happy/sad/laughing/angry faces are my quintessential childhood memories.
Look closely at the photo. Mom’s pumpkin cookies are a fairly simple treat – no family secret here. Find a good rolled ginger cookie recipe (the kind that banks on molasses, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves); roll and shape the cookies like pumpkins; bake to the consistency of gingerbread; frost to a bright orange; and devise the faces with candy corn, M&M’s, and fruit smiles. Be sure to let them dry before you protect them with a little plastic wrap. A recipe that claims a yield of sixty will get you about two dozen if you make them the right size. These cookies are B-I-G.
Mom’s pumpkin cookies tug at my heartstrings for two reasons. First, mom let my brothers and I do the decorating from a very young age. We would sit at the dining table – our makeshift bakery – with bowls of candy and row upon row of cookies just waiting for their faces. Not all of the candy made it onto the cookies. This was a child’s dream.
Second and more significantly, we handed out Mom’s pumpkin cookies from a big bowl at the front door on Halloween night. That’s right; instead of Smarties or Abba-Zaba’s or Sugar Babies, we sent dozens of homemade, orange-frosted, funny-faced cookies out into the neighborhood. Does it get any more innocent than that?
In the early 1970’s, after a rash of highly-publicized incidents involving tampered Halloween candy, a lot of the fun went out of the holiday. Trick-or-treat candy quickly became the mass-produced, store-bought, plastic-wrapped variety you can buy anytime, anywhere. Parents took to driving their kids from door to door instead of letting them navigate the streets alone. “Safe” trick-or-treating was born in churches and shopping malls.
And Mom’s pumpkin cookies started landing in the trash can at the end of our driveway.
Perhaps that explains why forty years later I still bake up a batch. Perhaps it’s my annual salute to the innocence of Halloween. Or better, perhaps it’s my mom as I remember her all those years ago, urging me to open the bakery yet again. Cookies are waiting for their faces.
M&M’s are easy to find, while candy corn requires a bit of a search. But fruit smiles are becoming the real challenge. Cracker Barrel stopped selling them a few years ago, no doubt for lack of sales. But a local candy manufacturer still makes them, so every October I visit their shop and buy my lot. This year, the older woman behind the counter asked me what I was going to do with four dozen fruit smiles. So I dipped into my quintessential memories and told her about Mom’s pumpkin cookies. And just for a moment she paused and closed her eyes, perhaps once again a little girl dressed in costume, running and laughing through darkened streets in search of that next Halloween treat.