Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, “My Culinary Compass,” she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.
Compass points: True north.
Everyone has a place they define as home, a place embedded in their DNA so tightly as to be a part of their matrix. Sometimes it is a place in their present, sometimes it is a place in their past. While I am very comfortable in the present, my culinary true north is the kitchen on Anderson Road in Queens in the house where I grew up. I vividly remember its layout and how the table in the breakfast nook, where we had dinner on weeknights served as the prep zone when my mother cooked. I learn to cook in that kitchen while watching my mother. I remember sitting on the bottom step of the step stool that my — dare I say it — short mother used to get to the top shelves. I remember the radio where I listened to children’s shows on Saturday mornings and watching attentively as mom made biscuits and pie crusts and seasoned roasts and chopped vegetables. As she was a working mother with an active only child, my being in the kitchen served two purposes: childcare and instruction. Of necessity, my mother became my culinary instructor teaching by example and by demonstration.
My mother was a master teacher as she actually had been trained as a dietitian and had an associate’s degree in dietetics from Pratt University. She worked briefly in the field at Bennett College an African American women’s institution in Greensboro, North Carolina, and as a private dietitian for wealthy family in New York City. She loved food and had the best palate of anyone I’ve ever known, but she left the field when friends convinced her that being a dietitian was too close to domestic work. She became a secretary.
She exercised her culinary skills in our household kitchen and I was her apprentice and eventually her sous chef. I was a most willing student and learned to chop and season with the best of them. I mastered roasting chickens and creating some of the classic dishes of the African American repertoire that turned up on our table. However, long before I was handling knives and mixing spices, our earliest bonding moments came when we baked cookies together.
Then, she would get out the frayed copy of the “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” that she had used at Pratt and we’d decide what type of cookies we were going to make. One of my favorites was an oatmeal cookie that had just enough crispness to be crunchy and was simple to prepare. I’d be detailed to greasing the cookie pans and assembling the few ingredients: oatmeal, sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla. Then, we’d bake the cookies.
I had not thought of the cookies or prepared them for more than 60 years, until recently, when I decided to get out the venerable copy of the cookbook and make them. Because I am incapable of following recipes without experimenting, I replaced some of the oats with dried coconut and almonds and added a dash of lemon extract (a family secret that gives a brightness to most baked goods). The results were delightful with enough of the past to make me nostalgic and a hint of the present in my additions.
I served them to a friend and was astonished when she asked about the ingredients and then informed me that they were not only amazingly tasty, but also gluten-free. I was delighted to know that an adaptation of a cookie recipe from my true-north kitchen had combined my tastes from the past with the present dietary needs of some of my friends. Somewhere I know my mother is smiling.
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the egg until light.
Slowly add the sugar, whisking constantly, until well-combined.
Add the melted butter, vanilla extract and lemon extract, and whisk to combine.
Add the oats, almonds, coconut and salt, and stir until well-combined.
Using a teaspoon measure, drop mounds of the cookie mixture onto parchment-lined sheet pans, spacing 1½ inches apart.
Using a fork dipped in cold water, use the tines to spread the mixture into a circular shape.
Bake until delicately browned around the edges, about 12 minutes.
Let sit for 10 minutes before carefully transferring the cookies to a cooling rack; cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Adapted from the “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” by Fannie Merritt Farmer. Little Brown and Company, 1931.