8 min read

This Is Not About Your Grandmother | Pfeffernusse Cookies

A Personal Canons Cookbook Essay by Josh Storey
This Is Not About Your Grandmother | Pfeffernusse Cookies

Josh Storey, a writer of science fiction and fantasy, has only ever wanted to be three things: an astronaut, Superman, and a writer. Since he’s no good at math and (as far as his parents will admit) not from Krypton, he’s going with option three.

You baked these cookies wrong. Not because of your skill (which was practiced) or because of the recipe (which was adequate), but because doing everything right isn’t always the right way to do things.

You were a slight woman with a strong mind for mysteries and puzzles and words. In a novel, you would solve cozy murders in a New England tourist town. In reality, you taught typing at the local school and raised your children and went to church. You were the kind of home cook who credited the person who gave you the recipe with its origination. Sally’s Meatloaf. Gerald’s Green Beans. Alice’s Chicken Soup.

Despite that, the recipe you were looking at had no name attached. Perhaps because it wasn’t done yet. It was the 1950s, and as you reached for the powdered sugar, you were still following the recipe as it was written.

Years later, when your cookies are finally called “Nanny’s Pfeffernusse”: I’ll be in elementary school. I’ll be given a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. Super Mario Bros. side-scrolling action adventure will fill my life, but my hands will not be able to find the hidden levels and secret power-ups. Practiced as I might become, regardless of how many guides I will read or friends I will consult during recess, whenever I search for secrets, instead I will find only dark pits, lost lives, and game-over screens.

But that’s later. Back then, you zested a lemon peel and added cinnamon to taste. You were not yet a grandmother. Not “Nanny,” and those hands of yours were not yet tangled with arthritis. They knew every secret of your kitchen. Every hidden cubby and drawer. They knew where you kept the pots, where to find the mixing spoons, that the tin by the stove was only ever to be used to keep the leftover bacon grease.

This was what your cookies were supposed to be: Pfeffernusse spice cookies. A delicious blend of warm spices contained inside a soft, pillowy dough. Teeth should slide through a pfeffernusse spice cookie the way they glide through a dense cake. It should be chewy and dusted all over with powdery confectioners’ sugar.

You were still following the recipe, but you didn’t know that was the wrong way to make your cookies.

In my 8-bit future, I’ll know this: One wrong step or poorly timed jump will be the death of my little plumber.

In the mystery novels you used to read, you’d have recognized this as foreshadowing.

You baked these cookies from scratch. The way you baked so many things. Adding nutmeg, cloves, and baking powder to the mix. The ingredients weren’t a problem. They weren’t tricky. They were written in ink on paper and found in your cabinet, on your spice rack.

The tricky thing with pfeffernusse was the timing. Fifteen to twenty minutes. A five-minute span. A huge gap. So much ambiguity there.

But the failures went to your children, so no one complained. For this reason, Simon and Trevor (names changed to protect their misdeeds) were always near the kitchen.

“Don’t eat these,” you said. “They’re too hard.”" You said this, but handed over the castoffs anyway, because it was what you did, and your children would listen. They wouldn’t eat your cookies.

They’d throw them at each other.

Trevor, you see, was smaller than Simon (who, to be fair, towered over all of the children in his grade and beyond and until eventually forced to play basketball even though he would rather have been reading). Simon used his height to win when they wrestled and roughhoused. So Trevor used the cookies.

Because they were little stones of dough. They hit just hard enough to count. Thankfully, you did not powder this batch.

Super Mario Bros. won’t be my sexual awakening (thankfully). But when that does happen—when I finally discover the secret level inside my heart—the discovery will terrify me. Deeply. Because the people I notice, the ones that will make my heart jump—they’ll feel like a mistake, and everything I’ll have been taught by the words that we toss around at recess will tell me that even hinting at my secret will be the same as falling into the deepest pit and dying.

So I’ll ignore the jump. I’ll intentionally pass by the entrance to the hidden level. Instead, I’ll do what everyone tells me is the right thing to do. I’ll date the girls who already like me. The ones my friends tell me I should ask out or take to dances or sit with on the bus during band trips. I don’t have extra lives, so I will not be able to afford even a single misstep.

If I were to even entertain the idea of exploring that hidden level, the secret would cease to be secret. It would spread as a rumor. It would seep into every relationship I’ve had or will ever have.

I will not jump.

The thwack and cry of rock-hard cookie on skin shouldn’t echo, but it did. Your children went to amicable war with each other. They got messy. Rough and tumble. The war spread to their siblings, and soon every child in the house had taken up arms.

Eventually, one misplaced throw sent a wayward confection against a sharp corner. The cookie cracked down the middle. Outside: a tooth-chipping crust. Inside: warm and soft and delicious. A treasure of sweetness was exposed. These weapons of a brothers’ war contained hidden spoils.

Your children began to squirrel away these bullet-turned-treasure cast-offs. They discovered that, in addition to being useful as bludgeoning weapons, even one of the cookies could last the whole day. Like a hardtack dessert, your failures endured.

I will avoid failure at all costs. I won’t get messy. Any foray into rough and/or tumble with my male friends threatens to crack the exterior shell I will build around my secret level. Any chance to stand out and add my own name to the top of a recipe card will be an opportunity to misstep. Flub the timing. Be exposed. So instead, I’ll follow recipes written in other people’s handwriting.

The next time you baked pfeffernusse, requests came for your failures.

“Make them harder,” Trevor said. “No, harder than that.”

“You’ll crack your teeth.”

“That’s what makes them good,” Simon explained.

Eventually, the wrong way became expected. By the time you were giving your grandchildren tins of your pfeffernusse for Christmas, the wrongness had become right. The failure—more than accepted—had become tradition. Now, it was not the holidays without your cookies done wrong.

It’s a new century. This is long after you’ve moved from the sprawling house where your children grew up. Now you live in a two-bedroom apartment in a building full of other grandparents who bake. On Saturdays, you go out to your favorite Chinese restaurant for an early dinner and then home for games with your friends or your family.

Video games are on discs now, in more bits than are worth counting, but your game is Scrabble. The letters snaking out across the board are a puzzle to be decoded. The optimal plays are secrets to uncover with each shake of the tile bag.

Trevor sits across from you. His wife (my mom) is on your left. I’m on your right. You’re 90-something now, and that’s about how much of a lead you have in the score, too. Forehead in my hands, I puzzle over my tiles. There is a hearty mix of consonants and vowels arrayed on my tray, but I can’t figure out how to form them into words on the board. I know there’s a correct order to all of this. A divine play that will win me the game with a word so smart I’ll earn smiles and praise all around.

All the words I can see, however, I don’t want to spell.

“What do you have?” you ask me, and I slide my tray of letters around to show you.

There are options there. Words you know I know. Words I could form if I wasn’t concerned with impressing or approval. And others, words you might suspect. Hidden words. Words you can’t tell me to use. Can’t force those secrets to reveal themselves. That would defeat the purpose.

The timing isn’t right.

You trust me to know when it is.

So instead, you suggest. You point out options. I look at the board and say, “Oh!” And I make a choice. Not one of your recommended options. It’s a little risky, this word I choose: tanuki.

“Like the raccoon suit in Super Mario Bros.,” I say.

The word feels like it shouldn’t be legal but no one challenges it. That double-word score doesn’t win me the game, but my small defiance still feels like a victory as I clean up the tiles and put away the board.

On our way out, you take a tin of your cookies from the kitchen. “I don't know why you kids like them so hard,” you say. By now, the call and response is as much tradition as the recipe. So my dad says, “Because they're better this way.”

You hug me, you kiss my cheek, and you put the tin into my hands to carry to the car. On the way home, I’ll gnaw on one in the backseat. Almost chip my tooth. Smile.

This isn’t the day I decide to leave the closet. But this day is a slight deviation from all the others surrounding it. It’s a single step outside the prescribed route, and I don’t fall into a pit. I don’t die. There’s no game over.

What there is: cool air—fresh and new, and it fills my lungs and my chest and my heart and I didn’t know I wasn’t breathing before but now I am, here in the car, on my way home. After a hug. And a cheek kiss. And a cookie done right the wrong way. I’m breathing.

It’s one day as a single tile on the tray that will eventually come together with the other days to form the words I’m afraid to say.

Your children and their children will try to unravel the mystery of “Nanny’s Pfeffernusse.”

They will find your recipe card in a book, pressed between pages. Preserved. The recipe you wrote will be correct, but that will be wrong. You won’t teach anyone the wrong way to make your cookies. When they try, the timing will always be off.

I never told you I was gay, because the timing never felt right. And I realize now, that was the actual mistake. There is no right time. There’s only now. So I embrace the fact that I’m going to do this all wrong. The missteps aren’t death. They’re the paths that lead to hidden levels.

I gather up the tiles of my days and form the words so that I might sign my name at the top of my own recipe.

I take down the sugar. I get a bowl.

It’s time to get messy.

It’s time to jump.

Josh’s Nanny’s Pfeffernusse

This recipe is for pfeffernusse, a German cookie that—when made wrong—reveals secrets. Prepared as written, it produces enough servings to host a small food fight with your siblings, or share with your friends.

Get the Recipe: PDF, Google Doc

If you’d like to own the Personal Canons Cookbook ebook, which collects all these essays and recipes in easy-to-reference, clickable format—plus loads of bonus recipes from me!—join the Stone Soup Supper Club. The ebook is free for subscribers, who will get the download link in their inboxes in the first Supper Club email of 2024!

Remember: Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.