By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
Christmas is over, but a few cookies, remnants of my December baking marathon, still rest in Tupperware at the back of my freezer. The annual frenzy of flour, sugar and sheet pans is once again another year away.
Loretta Zielinski, my mother, was a terrific baker. I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t see her, several times a week, pulling breads, cookies, cakes and pies out of the oven in her impossibly small kitchen. Most of these fed our family of six, but many went to church-related events: countless bake sales at SS Peter & Paul School in west Detroit; others to Altar-Rosary Society meetings; still others to the Sylvania Franciscan Sisters down the street.
Loretta was justifiably proud of her baking, always done from scratch—not from– God forbid– box mixes. Nor were goodies ever purchased from a bakery. (Polish pumpernickel and rye breads were the only exception.) We grew up on homemade oatmeal raisin cookies; peach and cherry pies full of backyard fruit we had picked and pitted; birthday cakes decorated with flowers and borders after she mastered several cake-decorating courses.
Accustomed to this culinary “embarrassment of riches,” I still yearned foolishly for the forbidden fruit of store-bought cookies: Oreos! They looked so impossibly perfect, lined up in their cellophane sleeves, each one nestled exactly, perfectly, against its neighbor. Homemade cookies never looked like that. They were irregular in size, shape, and circumference. I was seduced by the commercial perfection of those interlopers on the shelves. I can remember begging in vain for a package of Oreos. “No. You have much better than that at home,” Loretta would sniff.
I now bake year-round for family, friends, neighbors, and the poor and homeless community at the Catholic Worker. But it’s at Christmas that I try to honor mom’s legacy. She started her Christmas baking soon after Thanksgiving, creating multiple dozens of cookies varying in style, color, and ingredients. They were incredible. I wonder how I could have ever longed for factory-stamped-out, sugar-laden “zombie cookies” — over her Polish nut rolls and “angel wings,” her powdered-sugar rolled snowballs, the buttery shortbreads and soft macaroons, her apricot and raspberry-filled kolaczki?
It’s easy to be attracted to and tempted by whatever is “shiny and bright.” Only with age have I found the wisdom (most of the time!) to recognize the false from the true, the cheap from the valuable, the real from the fake. Mass-produced perfection never beats homemade from the heart. I now try to manage not to be “seduced by Oreos” (of any stripe) when I am so gifted with the Real Thing in this enchanted universe: God’s infinite presence, love and unconditional forgiveness. We, like cookies, are imperfect and uniquely-shaped gifts to and for each other. Mom’s words are as true now as they were back then: “You have much better than that at home.”