Monday, February 7, 2011

Cookies and Community


One of my mom’s treasured keepsakes that she gave to my aunt as a Christmas gift one year was their grandmother, Granny Heard’s, casserole dish. It was nothing fancy, but on the bottom was a faded label with her name on it – written in her own handwriting. I love to think about how this dish traveled from church potluck to family get-togethers and at some point, was no doubt filled with something delicious and left with someone in their time of need. I love the tradition of carrying food to people when they are sick, hospitalized, dealing the death of a family member, have a new baby or are just having a tough time. Food truly is an expression of love.

I know people around the world prepare and share food with others in difficult times, but I’d like to think that Southerners are especially good at the practice. I remember as a child the minute my mama would get bad news about someone or some situation, she would hit the kitchen. The smell of pound cake would fill the house as we’d excitedly run into the kitchen asking for a taste only to be turned away. “This isn’t for us. It’s for (insert name) whose (insert family member) is (insert calamity),” she would say. Oh, how torturous it was to watch a warm golden pound cake get wrapped in aluminum foil and shuttled away without even having a tiny sliver. However, she did often make two cakes so we weren’t completely deprived. And it wasn’t just cakes – there was vegetable soup, cornbread, casseroles, cookies – comfort foods that travel well and warm the soul. There is no doubt she learned this practice from her mother, grandmothers and neighbors in Coal Mountain. It’s just what people did, and thankfully still do. Although we may drop off a store-bought cake these days, it’s the thought that counts.

When her time of need came years later, the love that she had once cooked for others was returned in spades. My dad was fed and cared for by family and friends well after her passing. Every time we turned around, a HoneyBaked ham would show up on the doorstep. People were so kind and generous. It’s kind of funny how the death of a loved one brings about a feast – a time of gathering and eating food that others have lovingly prepared and donated. Really, I guess it is fitting. Food brings people together and provides sustenance when you need it most.

So, cooking and “rallying” (as my family would say) in the kitchen is just in my blood. On Friday, I found myself making my go-to chocolate chip cookies to take to a friend who just had a baby and a friend whose little boy just underwent a kidney transplant. I suppose I could have taken flowers, a balloon or some other non-edible gift, but being food-obsessed (and Southern), food is just the first thing that comes to mind. I am sharing this not to brag on myself, but rather just to point out how much of it is almost instinctual. I’m just following the traditions I’ve seen demonstrated in the past, that I have been the beneficiary of, and so greatly appreciate. I’ve seen amazing examples of generosity not only in the community I grew up in, but also in my present community. I live amongst good people, and for that I am so thankful.

And now, I want to share a little bit about Hyde – the little boy I visited. (I promise I’ll get to the recipe!) Hyde’s mom, Phyllis, is a childhood friend and distant cousin of mine like most people from Coal Mountain, Oak Grove or Silver City – communities within the northern part of Forsyth County. I remember going over to her house, making cookies and eating so much dough that we got sick. Her four-year-old son, Hyde, suffers from a very rare genetic blood disorder called atypical hemolytic–uremic syndrome (aHUS). The disease is a genetic blood disorder that causes the immune system to attack red blood cells. It eventually destroys the kidneys, renal system, and immune system. For the past two years, Hyde has endured numerous hospital stays and 10 hours of dialysis every night to do the work kidneys would normally do.

Because of the generosity of others and the hard work and dedication of doctors, researchers and other aHUS families, Hyde is the youngest and only the third patient in the U.S. to undergo a kidney transplant combined with drug therapy with an experimental new drug, Soliris. This treatment wouldn’t have possible a year ago – perhaps even six months ago. The research is that new. So far, Hyde is doing well and the hope is that his new kidney (graciously provided by his uncle) and drug therapy will stop the disease and allow him to live a long and "normal" life.

When we arrived at the hospital on Friday, Hyde was happily slurping milk out of a spiral straw. In the picture above, he is enjoying a popsicle and banana just three days after surgery! When he saw us bringing in cookies and muffins (the muffins were store-bought, I confess), he asked with great interest, “Ooh, what’s that?” He inspected them and seemed very pleased to have some goodies to munch on later. Cookies make everything better, right?

These cookies always draw rave reviews. The recipe comes from Mildred Council's Mama Dip's Kitchen cookbook that my friend who used to live in North Carolina gave to me. If you aren’t familiar with Mama Dip, she is a local legend in the Chapel Hill/Durham area for her soulful Southern cooking. Her cookies are super easy and always turn out divine (provided you don’t overbake them).

Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 stick butter (softened)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar (I think the dark sugar is the key in making these so delicious so don't sub with light if you can help it)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 tbsp. cocoa (I usually add a little extra)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used white chocolate chips in this recipe because I was out of semi-sweet)
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, beat together the butter and both kinds of sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix well. Sift the flour cocao, baking soda and salt together in a bowl. Add to the wet ingredients and mix well. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans. Using a spoon or scoop, drop batter onto a greased cookie sheet, forming cookies of whatever size you prefer, leaving the cookies about 2 inches apart. bake for 8 to 10 minutes, just until firm. Makes 4 dozen 2-inch cookies. (Note: I often double for a bigger batch.)

Finally, I want to put in a plug for an upcoming fundraiser that will help raise funds to support the Foundation for Children with Atypical HUS and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The third annual Hike4Hyde will take place on April 16 at the Sawnee Mountain Nature Preserve in Cumming. For more information and to register, visit the website. Also, if you can’t attend the hike or just want to make a donation, there is a link to do so through Paypal. Only about 300-600 people in the United States (mostly children) suffer from aHUS. Your dollars can have a big impact.

Thanks for reading and thanks for being a part of my community (real or virtual). The next time someone you know is having a hard time or dealing with a major life event – whether sad, scary or joyful – take them something to eat. We’ve got to keep this tradition going – it’s definitely one worth keeping.


  1. Beautiful post, Rachel! I love this tradition as well. I've never experienced the same sense of community anywhere else I lived, but when Gillian was born, I was so grateful to those who brought us dinners so that I could spend time with my family. It was so helpful that I never pass up the chance to "pay it forward" when I hear about someone else who needs a little extra help.

  2. I just love this post. I have recently moved away from the South and it took leaving to be able to fully appreciate the things Southern people do for each other. Makes me miss home quite a bit. :) And you are so very right about a good cookie--never overbaked!

  3. I was raised in the South but have lived in California for the last 26 years. The people here in Silicon Valley are just as generous and thoughtful. When my best friend died we were surrounded by friends and food for weeks. It continued for her husband for many, many months. So I think good people with big hearts are found everywhere.

  4. @Jessica and Caitlin - Thanks so much! @Tastemonials - I agree. I think it is all about close-knit communities. I think the reason that this tradition has been so strong in the South is because there were so many close-knit communities centered around farming. But, that closeness can certainly be found in other places where people really make an effort to get to know one another and support one another. Thanks so much for reading!

  5. Joyce was a good friend of mine and I so miss her biscuits. Love the blog!!!

  6. I loved your post. There are so many children suffering from deseaces these days and I am so sad for them. Childhood is supposed to be the most carefree period of your life and these children have to cope with so many problems so young an age. I am sure your cookies brought a big smile in his face.

  7. A lovely and very inspiring post. Wish all the best to Hyde!

  8. I came across your site from the foodieblogroll and I'd love to guide Foodista readers to your site. I hope you could add this chocolate chip cookie widget at the end of this post so we could add you in our list of food bloggers who blogged about recipes for chocolate chip cookies,Thanks!