National Sugar Cookie Day

If the sugar cookie could talk, I suspect it would express some bashful surprise at the fact that we honor, even celebrate, it.  The often pale and unadorned sweet might even blush to know that we toast its very existence today on National Sugar Cookie Day.

The Sugar Cookie, at least as we most often like it, appears as a simple treat made of ordinary ingredients that’s sometimes finished with an ordinary glaze, perhaps with a bit of color or, in a fit of holiday madness, there might be a jazzy sprinkle of brightly hued sugar that, like a festive hat, bedecks the cookie for a fete.

But even when the cookie takes on a less than modest appearance, as a star shape or perhaps in the form of a snowman, a tree, or a Santa cap, the fact of its transformation remains rooted in the simplicity of its making.  The simple dough is easy to cut and shape, and so bakers who lived long before the first cookie cutter could easily customize their baking.  Sometimes simplicity promotes longevity.

One of the earliest American examples of this sugary disk, the Nazareth Cookie (now installed as the official cookie of Pennsylvania) was created by Moravians in Nazareth, PA.  It’s not much more than sugar, flour, eggs, butter, leavening, and, maybem salt and was a part of a tradition of simple recipes for jumbal, jamble, jemelloe, or gemmel cookies that date beyond the 17th century – perhaps as long ago as 7th century Persia.  The popularity of the style cookie grew from its longevity – they could be cooked until they were dry and, admittedly, tough enough to handle a long journey.  It may be that, like some of your ancestors, the sugar cookie’s sires came over on the Mayflower.

Variations on the cookie became matters of pride – that’s certainly true in the South where the simple cookie morphed into the stately tea cake.  But even with an elevated name the cookie remained a relatively simple recipe – so much so that even the poorest larders might stock the ingredients to create tea cake for special occasions.  There are some culinary historians who opine that the sugar cookie or tea cake was one of the few holiday solaces that might grace a slave’s table in America.

It’s surprising, perhaps, to the modern palate with its cravings for flavor fireworks assuaged only by a multiplicity of radical tastes that the sugar cookie can have lasted so long.  And yet in its earliest incarnation, the cookie would have cajoled even the most jaded hipster palate.  Often English jumbals were touched by exotic spices like caraway, cardamom, anise or perhaps rosewater.  Sometimes they weren’t even what we might call sweet.

For such a simple recipe, the sugar cookie bears a complex array of culinary and social history:  the cultivation of sugar and the establishment of a spice trade mingle with joy, sadness, the travails of forced labor and slavery, religious oppression, the founding of a nation along with some stabs at utopia along the way.

This food celebration comes with much to contemplate – there’s a lot of history in this cookie.   So it’s best to start eating right now.  Happy Sugar Cookie Day – we hope it’s a sweet one.


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