For years I’ve missed out on something that as a child I loved dearly. Perhaps this started in my mid-teens, when it wasn’t cool to appreciate simple pleasures because that would appear childish. This probably happened about the time I discovered girls were everything, but totally unobtainable for me. By accident a few years ago I peeled back some of those unnecessary layers of adulthood and rediscovered that it’s OK to enjoy things valued as a child. This accident of discovery occurred as my own grandchildren started to reach those wonderful years of 3 to 6, and my desire to spoil them with lots of treats, and I ended up enjoying some of those treats myself.
One thing so easily obtained by me as a child, seems as unobtainable to me today as girls did 60 years ago. This particular thing I wanted for my grandchildren was a man, a tiny man usually found around Christmas. It’s not Santa or Jesus, the guy I’m searching for was handmade by my grandmother. That woman could make anything from absolutely nothing, and she made these little guys out of flour, sugar and molasses and most importantly, ginger. I want a good gingerbread man like granny made every December. They were soft, but not crumbly, and just sweet enough, with a hint of cinnamon and with that magic touch ginger gives almost anything.
So off I went to buy some of these palate pleasers for my grands, not for me you understand. Looking first at the nearby major food chains, I went to their bakery departments, nothing. I did find and try several brands of ginger snaps off the shelf; mass produced, they were too sweet without enough, or too much, ginger. But mostly they were as hard as marbles; my granny’s gingerbread men were soft and delicious and shaped like little men about six inches tall, with raisin eyes.
Next, a search in those markets that tell us they only feature healthy, fresh, organic, non-GMO foods. You know, where the prices are 30 percent higher. They have big bakery departments and offer delicacies seldom found this side of NYC. Perhaps they are just too sophisticated for simple things, no gingerbread men there.
My adventure took me to a place recommended by my wife as having the best pastries in Winston. It’s a small bakery that makes the most wonderful breads and cookies. “That’s all they do, bake stuff, they will have them if anyone does,” she tells me. They didn’t, but they had enormous, thick and better than an income tax refund, ginger cookies. They were very good, but shaped like large tennis balls, not men. It was necessary to eat two to assure myself these were not the object of my quest.
Finally two places were located in this search that had mass produced for Christmas only, gingerbread men, in plastic clam-shell containers, sealed closed with sticky paper on which was printed a listing of ingredients; far too many ingredients. For a real gingerbread man all that is necessary is flour, brown sugar, molasses, baking powder, egg, cinnamon and of course, ginger. No need for preservatives, because if they are good they’ll be gone in less than two days. I bought these highly marketed cookies, ate them, all of them, and I also ate ginger snaps from four different cookie producing giants. None of them, not a single one was as good as what granny made over 50 years ago. And certainly they weren’t good enough for my own grandchildren.
My granny didn’t pass down her expertise or recipes for gingerbread men, but she and my other grandparents passed down something of much greater importance. They, along with my parents, baked into me a sense of right and wrong. Sometimes this is called “values.” Walking through my seventh decade, I more and more realize how much those values have supported me. Not so apparent in everyday life, but there in bold face type in times when life was difficult, when choices had to be made. Without my even knowing it, my parents and grandparent were holding my hand, they were leading me through difficulties, so that I could come out the other side of adversity, be it large or small, with a clear sense of who I am. To struggle without damaging too much, others or myself. Of course I did not always follow their lead, but that usually didn’t feel good. And there was often a mess to clean up and a sense of guilt to carry around. They gave me a gift which has lasted my entire life, and a gift that has become more important to me as I’ve aged. They gave me values, what a wonderful gift.
Now if granny had only left written instructions for making gingerbread men, life could be nearly perfect. My search this year left me totally unsatisfied, and all I got was a new belt, size 38, up from my normal size 36. All those false starts, I mean you just can’t throw cookies away even if they are not up to your expectations. Part of a good values system granny taught me is “do not waste anything.” There was no choice. I had to eat all those imitations.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court-appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.