Why Does He Fiddle On The Roof?


Every family is full of idiosyncratic rituals that baffle outsiders. In Dad's family, one of these traditions can be found in the form of "S" cookies, an anise-flavored confection with pastel icing whose recipe has been in the family as long as the family has been in America. They are dry, crumbly, and like many Italian cookies, more palatable when dunked in coffee. They are definitely an acquired taste, and seeing as how I don't drink coffee, my modest enjoyment of them is rooted largely in childhood nostalgia. However, they are Dad's favorite cookie, so I tend to whip up a batch for special occasions like Father's Day and Dad's birthday. Since the "S" cookies are a family specialty, and we are heading down to St. Louis tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving with Dad's side of the family, I decided this year that my contribution to the annual feast would be a batch of them.

The icing was actually purple, but it was hard to get a decent photo of it in the kitchen lighting.

I'm not going to share the recipe for these with you, because I seriously doubt that anyone outside of the family would want to eat them. Instead, I will share a memory with you:

I have lost both of my grandparents on my father's side, but one of my happiest memories of them comes from one of my annual summer visits to their house. Near the end of each trip, my grandparents and I would bake up a massive batch of "S" cookies to bring home to Dad. When I say massive, I do not exaggerate: my copy of the recipe, scrawled out on a piece of notepaper by my grandpa for me when I was just starting to learn to bake, calls for 12 cups of flour and 3 cups of shortening, yielding approximately 9 dozen cookies! Nana would make the dough, and Grandpa Jack and I would shape the cookies, rolling them into snakes and then forming the snakes into "S" shapes. The cooling cookies would be perched on every horizontal surface of the kitchen while they were waiting to be decorated.

One year, with the typical inquisitiveness of a young child, I asked Grandpa why we made "S"-shaped cookies when our last name starts with an "L." He didn't know why, just that that was how we had always done it. That year we experimented with "L" shapes, and plain round cookies, but in subsequent years we reverted to the classic form. Why? It's not like they taste any better when shaped like an "S." Indeed, I've never shared them with anyone who didn't grow up eating them who actually liked them. It's just tradition.

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