Friday, September 24, 2010
THE COOKIE TRAY
Every bakery in South Philadelphiafrom Termini’s to Cosmi’s prepared them---the Italian cookie tray. In our neighborhood, it was the centerpiece of celebrations—Baptism, weddings, First Holy Communion, high school graduations. A cookie tray on the dining room table signaled a special occasion as much as shined shoes and a haircut.
On my Confirmation Day, one arrived covered in cellophane like a glistening gift. Underneath waited tiny tasty treasures, impossible to resist. Mom slapped my hand away when I tried ever so slowly to grab one. “Not yet,” she scolded.
“Just one,” I begged.
I gazed at the tiny mountain of assorted treats---cookies covered in pignola nuts with a chewy moist center, butter cookies flecked with green and red cherries, mini biscotti, half moon shapes of almond and cinnamon. Here and there, jutted pastel-colored Jordan almonds---candy mortar holding it all together. Everything was dusted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Atop the white sugar rested swirls of festive pink and green cellophane.
“Please,” I tried again.
“Oh, all right,” my mother said, “Just be sure to take it out of the bottom.”
My mother was never a stickler about my nutritional needs. She just didn’t want the tray to looked picked over when it was presented to the guests.
I was hungry, and itchy in my white polyester Confirmation dress. A bobby pin dug into my hair where my flowered crown sat.
Roseanne Pecora, my all around caregiver, hair brusher, snack maker, was my sponsor---a kind of hip godmother. She stood behind me as I walked up the aisle at Stella Maria. I had just been slapped in the face by the bishop and given the middle name “Carmella.” I was officially confirmed—another sacrament ticked off the list. The only thing I had to eat all morning was a Communion wafer. I wanted to try every cookie, but had to make a choice. Which one would I take as a free pre-party sample?
I scanned the selection until I found one shaped like a ball, smothered in confectioner’s sugar, loaded with chopped nuts—my favorite. It was all over in half a bite---the sweet buttery flavor combined with the pleasant crunch created a sensation that seemed closer to heaven than the last two hours in church.
“One more,” I said, hoping for a miracle.
Mom shook her head while she glided an Avon mini-lipstick in shimmery coral over her lips,
“Nah, unh,” came the answer. “You have to eat first,” she said.
But, I thought to myself, this is eating. I had no interest in the sausages in thick gravy, the simmering slices of roast pork, baked ziti---heavy, salty, spicy---a waste of stomach space. That was food that required forks and knives, food that weighed you down, that made your breath smell bad.
Relatives arrived, offering me smiles, congratulations and white envelopes stuffed with fives and tens. I smiled back, but my mind drifted to the tray, now tucked away on the kitchen table, and waited.
Hours later, amid cigarette smoke and waning conversation, the smell of coffee perculating on the gas range heralded the start of dessert time. My mother slid the tray on the table and soon the chairs around it were filled with aunts and uncles, neighbors and toddlers leaning in to take a treat. I started with a rococo---meringue enrobed with peanuts and lingered over something filled with jam. There were some I liked more than others, but none I wouldn’t at least give a try.
Years went by and though I thought I would mature out of loving cookies, I never did. Those early days of cookie trays stayed with me and informed many of my food choices.
More years went by. A man I loved proposed marriage and I said yes though he preferred eating chicken over shortbread cookies.
A week before the wedding, I sat in a hospital room with my mother, dying of cancer. She wouldn’t make it to the ceremony, the reception, to wear the salmon colored dressed she bought at the Mansion House on Broad Street.
Following surgery to repair a bone ravaged by her disease, a piece of her mind went missing. Hallucinations, a mental separation from the grim reality that only death would relieve her suffering. She imagined squirrels scurrying down the hospital hallways, saw her own mother, dead for 25 years, smoked phantom cigarettes.
In the twilit room, her eyes closed, hands punctured with intervenous drips like a high-tech crucifixion, she turned to me.
“I’m ready for the wedding, mom,” I said, trying to sound happy. “I've my gown,
the flowers, satin shoes, a French manicure.”
She nodded, though I suspected she barely understood what I was saying.
“Did you get the cookie tray?” she asked, and I told her yes, oh, yes, it was ordered and waiting at the bakery. All we had to do was pick it up.