Friday, 20 December 2013 | 38 comments

Dennie’s molasses cookies

Four Decembers ago, my friend Jonathan and I went camping. (If you know both of us, this is only mildly absurd.) We went to Assateague—you know, the island where the wild ponies are?—and the freezing rain started on our drive there. It didn’t stop as we pitched our tent. It was so windy we couldn’t even get a fire lit to heat water for coffee. After one night, our spirits weren’t totally dampened, so we went hiking on the beach. We got back, freezing, wrapped ourselves in sleeping bags and ate cheese and apples in the tent. Jonathan produced some Ziploc bags full of his mom’s molasses cookies. The rain turned to snow, and we decided to leave, cutting the trip short.

We took a lot of pictures on the trip—Jonathan sitting on some driftwood as grey, winter-storm surf rolled in, me running on a beach that looked like the craggy surface of the moon with the grey sky hanging low—so it looms large in my memory. The whole affair was brief and completely miserable, but somehow we both remember it as this pinnacle event of our lives.

It also etched Jonathan’s mom’s molasses cookies into my memory indelibly. When you’re hungry and cold, anything tastes good, but something actually good tastes extraordinary. Awhile later, I visited Jonathan’s parents home, and I made sure not to leave without the molasses cookie recipe. Scrawled by his mom, Dennie, on the back of an old graduation announcement, I guarded it in a notebook in my kitchen.

Dennie and I have kept in a sort of sporadic touch the past few years, trading letters and cards, and every once in awhile she sends me cookies. Jonathan sends her links my blog posts when he thinks she’ll like them, which is another way of keeping in touch, I guess. When I wrote about my grandpa this summer, she sent me the kindest letter. It was partly to send condolences, but partly to exhort me: Write. Keep writing. Write a book. Whatever you do, write. It was a vote of confidence from someone I don’t know that well, which is maybe what made it so compelling. I re-read the letter a lot.

And then I wrote back. Poor woman didn’t know what was coming—I spilled out a lot of insecurities to her, all the things that make me not write, that tell me that the link between my head and typing fingers is never good enough and never true enough to life. That the stories I have to tell are ugly, sad, or sometimes cynical, and aren’t the types of generous, warm-fuzzy things people want to read. That I think I’m all tapped out on the warm-fuzzy, dammit.

It was one of those letters that I immediately felt a flush of embarrassment after I sent it, self-conscious about how honest it was. It was a silly feeling. I forgot about it, and the letter.

. . . . . .

I have been having a hard time getting in a jingly mood this year: sort of tired and world-weary. I’m a bit suspicious of it all, in a way that makes me realize I’ve actually become a grown-up. Work has kept me away from home a lot. We haven’t had time to get a tree, and I basically nixed it because we just can’t fit it in. There are mice living under the floorboards. Things like that. Nothing extraordinary, but enough to feel like what I really want to do is sleep, rather than celebrate.

Jonathan lives on the West Coast now, and we don’t see each other that regularly. He and his brother and sister-in-law passed through on their way home for the holidays yesterday. They walked in the door with bourbon and pumpkin pie, a harbinger of how nice their visit would be. We sat around the woodstove and drank the bourbon, eventually drinking enough that I convinced Ben to play “Wagon Wheel” on banjo and we sang it.

This morning they stayed for awhile, chasing chickens and eating pie. Eventually we wound up around the dining room table, looking at maps, discussing which explorer was least horrible (Bartolome de las Casas? One of the polar explorers? Does Darwin count as an explorer? Definitely not Vasco da Gama).

I sent them away with a dozen eggs for Dennie, who they’d see in just a few hours. I made Jonathan promise to get me the molasses cookie recipe, because I somehow lost it last time I moved. They left the rest of the bourbon.

After I watched the car pull out of the driveway, I walked to get the mail. An orange slip told me that I had missed a delivery-confirmation package. At the post office, the clerk handed over a small box. It was from Dennie. I opened it in the parking lot, thinking it would be cookies. But it was a Christmas gift, and a long letter, responding to the one I sent this summer. Who cares?! she wrote. You need to write. Be brave and do it. When the page gets a tad blurry because of tears, you’re doing it right.

And so here I am, rambling away with my well of holiday cheer somewhat restored. I’m thinking about how silly I am, and how it really doesn’t matter, and how much I like bourbon, and how I’m probably about to have some more. I’m remembering the ending of that classic O.Henry tale where some other silly young folk get more than they deserve:

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

[I’m leaving you with a recipe for hot buttered bourbon. I’ll post that molasses cookie recipe when I get it. Whatever you celebrate and whether or not you do, wishing you all things merry and bright.]

Hot buttered bourbon

You’ll need

  1. 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  2. 3/4 cup brown or demerara sugar
  3. 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  4. For assembly:
  5. Bourbon
  6. Hot water
  7. A squeeze of orange juice(optional)


  1. In a bowl, mash the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until well mixed.
  2. To make the hot buttered bourbon, put a tablespoon of the compound butter in a glass. Add 1 ounce (or more!) bourbon, and then top with 4-5 ounces hot water, stirring to dissolve the sugar and butter. Finish with a squeeze of orange juice if desired.

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§ 38 responses to Dennie’s molasses cookies

  • Steph

    I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I also love those cookies. Can’t wait to see you!

  • I’m going to ditto commenter Steph above me and just say, wow, YES. The way you told this story, from the opening scene of you and Jonathan going camping, to the end quote from The Gift of the Magi, reminds me of what it is I love about the written word. I’m with Dennie times a thousand. WRITE. (And thank you for saying sometimes it’s hard because that encourages me.)

  • You are a writer. Already you write, and lives are smiling, remembering, eating. You take a memory, share it, create a longing. Then you bring in more characters, a deeper song, writing all the while. Your fingers type a path and we, readers, are eager to follow where it leads.
    I laid waste my life during this past year, so I understand being tired, not jingly until the surprise, the heartfelt creativity and encouragement of another finds it way to me, such as this post, that lost cookie recipe, the laughter of an old friend, a spot of liquid gold, a spirited directive is slowly restoring my cheer.
    I raise my glass, and drink to you, the writer, with much gratitude.

  • Pam Spettel

    Beauty is in the everyday; the measure of living is in the everyday, which you capture so poignantly. Cheers to you, the brave writer, and to all the Dennie’s of the world.

  • Weeping. WEEPING. This is so beautiful, so true, and we all need some encouragement along the way. Because any act of creation means bringing something into the world that has never existed before. Ponder that for a moment. It’s a big deal. And scary, and of course we doubt ourselves. OF COURSE. All artists do. We’d be crazy not to.
    Not to mention, thoughtful types who become writers, they think. They question. It’s part of the job description.
    But never wonder if you should or could be a writer, you simply are. It’s how you process the world. You could choose to do something else, but it will always be with you (and your friends will love your emails ). You are a writer, even if you decide to do something else with your time and energy.
    I, for one, hope that you don’t :-)
    And I’m glad you have a Dennie in your life. Very glad.

    As for the holidays? Oh, the holidays. You lack of jingle reminded me of this. I’ve so been there myself. But bourbon with friends and pie for breakfast sounds like it’s own celebration.
    Sending love.

    • Terry Covington

      It would be crazy to look at the world as it is and NOT feel overwhelmed and question a lot of things. But I hope that the world is held together by people like Dennie, and Tea above, and Catherine above, and anyone who does someone else a kindness. I have to believe that the kindnesses outweigh, if not outnumber, the injustices. I agree with Tea, for those of us who write, it is part of who we are, not just what we do. Doubt comes with it; but doubt enriches the end product. I am another one who is not in too much of a holiday mood this year — but more than I thought I would be after two major losses in the autumn. We are having a simple, mostly homemade Christmas this year, and it feels really good. Wrap yourself in the warmth of all of those who believe in you and encourage you. Thank you for another wonderful story.

  • Yes – you must write. Agreed.

    I am also very down on christmas right now. Probably work overwhelmingness. Not feeling the consumerism. But I just bought a couple books I loved for my sisters and best friend – just 4 – and called it a day. That’s it for gifts for me and it certainly feels like enough. Letters, cookies, pie — these are gifts worth giving and receiving. That, along with your lovely words. Thanks always for sharing them.

  • I’m always rooting for the beautiful hard times. They remind me that I’m properly alive and not jes’ faking it. Besides, Christmas is just an excuse to eat lots of molasses flavored things and paste paper snowflakes all over the house (if you’re into that sort of thing…). In other words, thanks for your stories, lovely lady, every which way they come.

    P.S. Do you have a favorite bourbon you could recommend? I want to bring a good American whiskey back to my homies in France, but I’m typically more of a scotch gal and know basically nothing about bourbon–help! I tend to be a fan of smoky whiskeys, if that help give direction. Cheers, my dear!

    • Thanks! The green labelled bottle you see in the photo is actually a rye whiskey by Bulleit, which is very affordable, easily available, and really good for the price. (If you asked me, I’m more of a scotch lady myself too, so I’m no expert.) Bulleit also makes a bourbon, also affordable, also good.

  • Dora

    lovely – don’t stop doing this, your thoughts are alive dancing in front of me . . this feels just right! . . and thanks for sharing (smiles)

  • Koula

    Lovely lady, you write so beautifully. Your insight into the everyday things in life are so well captured and transformed into poetry which resonates deeply unto us, we sensitive souls. I adore your way of telling your stories and applaud that they are not shiny and new, but filled with widsom and detail and full of truth. There are others too that feel the same this time of the year, having had a challenging year, difficult at times. This tender post reminded me to and acknowledge the people who add wonderful layers into our lives. Greetings from Melbourne, Australia, where it’s sunny and warm. Keep up the gorgeous work you do here on your blog. Cheers, K.

  • Shirl

    Please write. I so look forward to reading your posts. You write naturally and beautifully. Happy times to you and yours.

  • I just wanted to add another voice encouraging you to keep writing. And as for being out of warm fuzzies, that’s okay. Reading about so many perfectly groomed dining room tables and heart warming moments can be exhausting. You are a breath of fresh air that I (and, I suspect, all your readers – because you do have readers!) can relate to .

  • Sarah

    There are blogs I read every day, that give a quick pop of colour, or flavour, or brief thoughts, and there are blogs that I read more infrequently, as the posts are less regular, but I enjoy more because they are more in depth, have more feeling, more flavour, give me a taste of somewhere else and make me think about things more deeply. This blog is one of the latter. I don’t know you, I can’t remember how I came to your blog, but I enjoy what you write, and I enjoy the recipes you post. So, I for one would like you to carry on writing.

    Wishing you a calm and peaceful Christmas.

  • joan

    Awhile back I read something that Beth from Local Milk wrote….. The everyday magic is the only way to be happy. If you live to find the highs and to avoid the lows, you will always grasp and forever be hungry.
    Whatever the written story may be, you have the know-how, ability, gift…. to make it come to life. Yes, you are a writer, and yes please keep writing.

  • Sarah–the ugly, sad, cynical writings are my favorite. It’s like allowing brass or silver to patina–it’s the real deal–us without our make-up or good cheer or forced smiles. The writing I read that echos this, it makes me feel most human. Most normal. One day a friend told me that I am a writer because I write. Nothing more. The next week I sheepishly submitted work to a competition and won an award. This writing thing, it makes us so vulnerable, and so real, and so it is damn hard. You’ve got it, Sista. xo

  • hello hello :)

    your writing is good *because* of your self-doubt. it doesn’t come off as uppity or too far removed. there are mice under your floorboards- i like that truth, pain in the ass though it may be for you.

    and if there’s solace to be found, at least for me, it’s in the fact (for me) that none of it is just that serious. you try your actual best, and the rest is out of your hands. i believe in an afterlife so maybe it’s easier for me to believe that than it is for some, but that’s my two cents.

    i assume you celebrate christmas, so i hope yours goes well!


  • I’m sure you’ve already read it, but if you’re ever feeling like you can’t write, or can’t do whatever creative thing, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is just the greatest book that ever was.

  • I’m sure you’ve already read it, but if you’re ever feeling like you can’t write, or can’t do whatever creative thing, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott is just the greatest book that ever was. Not quite as good as getting a personal letter full of advice and encouragement, but pretty darn close.
    And of course, I also agree, just keep writing. Your essays stand out above most everything else I read online, they satisfy and encourage my soul. Warm wishes for you and yours! I’m hoping the slow return of the light will bring with it peace, and lots of those lovely moments which remind us that each one is precious.

  • Made me tear up. People are amazing. I think you knew what you were doing when you sent her all that personal stuff about your insecurities. People who write to an acquaintance just to tell her to never stop writing probably have a pretty good handle on the whole intentional vulnerability thing.

    P.S Never stop writing <3

  • Elle

    Gosh, if you haven’t already seen it, I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted talk about the process of writing. Though she talks a bit more about the stress of following up any great effort with a second act, it’s all about the vulnerability and bravery of self expression. You’ll enjoy it if you haven’t seen it.

  • Just when I think your writing couldn’t possibly get ANY better, you go and shut me up.
    Like the woman said: KEEP writing. Please. We need your voice and your wisdom. xx

  • Emily

    You’re doing everything right. xoxo

  • jacquie

    keep writing you brave soul. the world needs to hear your voice as all is not pretty and nice and the other pieces need to be spoken of also. take care.

  • what all of these fine people have already said, plus my two cents; you’ve got to write for you, for right now, with no idea how it will turn out or look, writing because you can’t not write. i don’t know if there are necessarily any tricks, but if there are, that’s the one I’ve found. trust your voice.

    I have my students read “The Gift of the Magi”as part of their midterm exam each year. they are always charmed & heartened by it. xx

  • Sweet, sweet, this is so sweet. Thank goodness for friends and encouragers near and far (and yes: write! but honestly I think insecurity is part of the deal, at least it is for me). Happy new year to you, Sarah! May it bring many good things.

  • I come to this space to step away from my world and step into yours for a few minutes and for that I thank you. You words are transporting and I encourage you to never, never stop. Happy New Year! Wishing you the best of 2014.

  • meg

    Please do keep writing. There are precious few blogs that I care to actually real through these days, and yours is one of them. A diamond in the rough is putting it mildly.

  • LIke one or two others who’ve commented here, I don’t know how I found this blog. But this post is truly lovely. A fine sense of detail and the shape of an anecdote. And I will check again for the molasses cookie recipe. I have been on a long quest for a perfect chewy molasses cookie and Dennie sounds like a woman who makes a good one!

  • Karolyn

    I think I am falling in love with you…err, I mean with your writing. Holy smokes, you sure know how to grab a girl by the heart. Fear not- like Linsey above, we WANT to hear the ugly, sad, and cynical. Anyone can do warm and fuzzy. You write about the things we think and feel but are afraid to say out loud. That’s why it’s scary, and that’s why it is so damn good.

  • Antigua Cancion (Old Song)

    Each of us caries in our chest
    A song
    So old, we don’t remember
    If we ever really learned it
    Some night
    Between the murmurs of fallen wishes
    Our lips surprise us
    When we utter that song
    That is like singing
    And crying
    At once.

    I cannot remember who wrote this poem … but what you wrote here made me very tearful and I just wanted to say thank you a lot for your writing – and your continuing with it.

  • Margot Van Schaick

    Sarah. Since first reading this post, I’ve taken time from other things I should be doing(working for income) to re-read some of your older posts. I find myself again and again overwhelmed by your honesty, intelligence, deep thinking related to down-to-earth daily life, and more than anything else, the beauty you create in living your life and writing about it. You have a truly wonderful gift. I hope you keep practicing it.

  • What she said. Both times. Wise, wise woman, that Dennie.

    And for what it’s worth? I happen to think this world needs a few more prescient, sardonic, dry, astute, insightful, honest cold pricklies. Which of course aren’t pricklies, at all, just this thing we call life.

    Keep writing, Sarah. The blurrier, the better.


  • Monica

    Loved this post and I keep checking back for the recipe for molasses cookies — they sound lovely! I agree with Molly…keep writing! Looking forward to your next post.

  • Kelly

    I recently had a conversation with my father. He told me that my mother was taking a creative writing class at IUPUI. This was after all her children were grown. I always thought she would have been a great writer!
    Needless to say, my father told her he didn’t know she was creative. My mother took his comment to heart and quit the class.
    I think you are a great writer. I hope you keep writing and writing and writing.

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