THE FLAVORS AND SCENTS OF CHRISTMAS are the flavors and scents of a distant — ancient, even — British past: preserved fruits (visions of candied peel and sugarplums) and precious spices (ginger and nutmeg carried on camelback over the Silk Road), mingled into sweetmeats and mince. Perhaps these remnants of otherwise long-lost culinary traditions survive at holiday time, specifically, because that is when we are at our most sentimental, most in the mood to hold fast to the oldest rites and rituals.
Molasses is another key ingredient in the aromatic December kitchen of American tradition, and it is also — like the aforementioned mince, as well as rum and salt cod — a flavor relic of America’s colonial days.
In the trade routes of the 17th and 18th centuries, slave-labor plantations in the Caribbean and the American South grew sugarcane, which was milled into sugar and its byproduct, molasses; these were cooked up into rum at distilleries from grenada and Trinidad all the way north to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes; and this rum was drunk by the deepwater fishermen who caught the cod that was hung out on racks to dry, then packed in salt . . . and shipped south to feed both sailors and slaves. And so the wheel turned.
It is interesting to note that molasses was, until some 60 years or so ago, an essential staple of the home cookery of coastal communities all along this trade route. Rum, the other byproduct of the colonial sugar industry, is still the booze of choice not just in the balmy punches of St. kitts or St. Barts but in the fishing communities of the Maritimes, where it outsells vodka and other 20th-century tipples by miles. (In Newfoundland they call it screech.)
Whether you’re talking about cod cakes or cookies, you could compare common kitchen recipes collected a century ago in isolated communities of rural Nova Scotia — where in some corners and coves the people speak with an accent remarkably akin to the old Bonac accent, which, we’re told, is itself remarkably akin to the English country accent of Dorsetshire in the Elizabethan age — and find that they were often almost identical to recipes collected here on the East End a century ago.
Pantries for nonrefrigerated cold storage used to be found in almost all houses hereabouts. Apparently it was a nearuniversal habit to keep these pantries stocked with molasses cookies, cookies that were as common 60 and 160 years ago as a bowl of apples within ready reach on the kitchen counter is today.
The best existing record of old East End food-ways are the early editions of the Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbook, the first of which was published in 1896. If you peruse the pages of cakes and sweets in that first one, you will find a dozen recipes for molasses cakes and cookies. Even as late as the 70th-anniversary edition, in the mid-1960s, there were a half-dozen variations on “grandmother’s ’lasses cookies.” Many of these recipes call for sour milk or sour cream; many also mention dissolving baking soda (or even salterus, its mid- 19th-century precursor) in white vinegar.
For those who would like to taste the genuine article, we have sorted through these variations, tested a couple, and homed in on a recipe that was submitted by Mrs. Daniel Huntting in 1916.
Here, we have retained the touch of vinegar — just because — and if you want to get fancy, and be extra Christmas-y, the addition of a teaspoon of grated nutmeg — another favorite flavor in the old-time East End kitchen — wouldn’t be amiss.
Mrs. Huntting’s 1916 Molasses Cookies
Makes about 60 cookies
1 C. butter, softened
1 C. blackstrap molasses
1 C. brown sugar
1/2 C. sour cream
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
4 1/3 C. flour
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
1 Tbsp. baking soda
Granulated sugar (white or brown)
Preheat oven to 325.
Grease baking sheets.
Beat butter, molasses, brown sugar, sour cream, and vinegar until lumps disappear. Sift together flour, ginger, and baking soda and beat together into the brown mix. Form dough into balls just wider than an inch. Roll balls in granulated sugar, place on cookie sheet, and use fork to crisscross crush them so they are about half an inch thick. (They won’t spread much during baking, so you should be able to fit 15 per tray.) Bake 10 minutes.