Today is the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake. This is the day my sisters, parents and I gather together for our tradition of holiday cookie baking. In fact, as you read this, I am most likely covered in flour and sugar. To help explain this day, and why I am thankful for my sisters, I am using an essay I wrote earlier this year for a memoir class. Susan, Mary Jane, Donna, Sandy and Caroline – I love you more than I can convey adequately with words. Thank you for all you do for me and for others. I may jokingly offer you to others as sisters, but I can’t imagine my life without your love.
Families bond in different ways. In my family – we bake. I’m not talking a pie, cakes, or a loaf of bread. My five older sisters and I are part of a tradition of cookie baking.
My Grandma DiNoto, her friends called her Kate, taught us to bake her “Fancy Brown Cookies” by feel. “You don’t need to measure the orange juice. Keep adding juice until it feels like this when you roll it into a ball,” she would say as she cradled the dough in her palm. Noni – also known as Grandma Spadaro or Josephine – made the best Italian Wedding Cookies. When I moved to Albany I heard people refer to them as Ginettes but we always call them oil cookies. My Noni’s oil cookies were never dry and always melted in your mouth, the flavor of anise dancing on your tongue.
I can remember my mother making her Christmas cookie list the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was important to create the list so she would know how much butter, flour, sugar and eggs to buy. My parents had a full length freezer on their back porch and in December, the majority of the freezer was full of cookies. As plates were made and given as gifts, space was created in the freezer and quickly filled with more cookies.
I left home in August 1990 as an exchange student to spend a year in Australia. At Christmas, my mother was missing her “baby” so to cheer her up my sisters Caroline and Donna asked if they could join her to bake cookies. Thus, the tradition of the DiNoto Cookie Bake was born. That first year, nobody could predict what this event would become. For my mother, it was a chance to share family recipes with her daughters. For my sisters, it was a way to practice baking with an expert while helping Mom feel the holiday spirit.
I was home from Australia in 1991 and I joined the group. We continued on for several years until Donna moved to Florida. Caroline and I would still meet at Mom’s house on a Saturday in early December and bake from breakfast until late afternoon. It wasn’t too long before the other sisters decided they wanted to join the party and in 1999 Susan, Mary Jane and Sandy all came for the first time.
Over the years we have expanded. We now bake at my sister Caroline’s house. She has a double convection oven which means 6 trays of cookies can be baking at once! This simple move tripled our output. In fact, when Caroline built her new house in 2009, one of the first questions from the sisters was “Will you still have a double oven?!” That Thanksgiving weekend we christened the new kitchen with flour and sugar while dozens of cookies piled up to cool on the tables in the living room. The emails and instructions detailing who should bring what to Cookie Bake start in early November.
As the youngest sister, I am the keeper of the “Cookie Journal.” This journal records secrets and insights, reminders, lessons learned, and stories to be treasured and remembered. There is the reminder from 2005 warning us not to over-fill the pecan tassie pans. The 2008 entry reminds us how we took baking in shifts so we could all run to the hospital to visit Dad who was recovering from hip replacement surgery. The single sentence, “Hi all – love you,” written by my sister Mary Jane in 2011, one month before she died from brain cancer, makes all of us cry.
The five remaining sisters are individually part of something bigger, like a single measuring cup from a larger set. We still gather for Cookie Bake, but we know the day is not really about the cookies. The day is about us being together, putting the set back in order, starting the holidays with family and love. The set of measuring cups is incomplete now, with one cup always missing. Though you can make a full cup using halves and thirds, it’s not the same.