‘Tis the season for specialty foods that grace store shelves and dining tables but once a year. And for some people, certain times of the year just don’t seem quite right unless the table is graced by those unique edibles. Have you ever gone to ridiculous lengths to make sure that you and yours could have that one, prized food on your stomachs? For this month’s Inviting Writing, tell us about the distances you traveled, the favors you called in, the sleepless nights, the hours spent slaving in the kitchen and whatever else you had to do to secure a special dish. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com by Friday, December 9 and we will publish our favorites on subsequent Mondays. I’ll get the ball rolling.
How I Got My Cookie Fix
By Jesse Rhodes
For almost every special occasion—anniversaries, graduations and always at Christmastime—Mom would invariably make platters of pizzelle. For the uninitiated, these are Italian cookies made via a waffle iron-like press where dollops of sticky dough—punched up with flavorings like vanilla, anise or cocoa—are flattened out into wafer-thin discs emblazoned with fabulously intricate designs. Coated with confectioner’s sugar, their resemblance to snowflakes is striking. And, due to their delicacy, trying to eat them requires some skill. One wrong bite and the entire thing snaps, smattering the front of your shirt with flecks of white powder, which, admittedly, can be some source of entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect cookie. Not content with trying to time visits home to when Mom might be making them, I decided I needed an iron of my own. The problem is that every pizzelle manufacturer has its own cookie design. Logically, pizzelle made in any other machine should taste just like the ones I ate growing up, but none quite inspired the same sense of nostalgia as the look of Mom’s cookies. So, like hers, mine had to be the Vitantonio model 300 pizelle chef with cast iron grids, made in the good ol’ U.S.-of-A. No substitutions.
This particular machine had not been produced since the early 1990s, and eBay seemed to be my only hope for scoring one. It turned out other people had a similar appreciation for the goodies this iron made and were willing to shell out big money, sometimes paying upwards of $100, which was well above what I could afford. Nevertheless, I was not above engaging in bidding wars. Despite knowing that the odds of actually winning were slim, I blithely kept placing bids in dollar increments, sticking it to whoever had the means of investing more money than I in a uni-tasker kitchen appliance that, admittedly, even I would only use during the winter holidays. Sure, my fellow eBay bidders could have their cookies. But if I had anything to say about it, they were going to pay for them.
It was late July and weather forecasters were making a big t0-do over the fact that the heat index would hit a whopping 105 degrees. Since that day also happened to be a Saturday, and I wasn’t about to waste a day off sitting inside with the blinds closed and A/C cranked, I got up early to at least get a walk in and went down to the local Goodwill before the weather became too unbearable. While browsing the mishmash of kitchen goods, I saw it. Nestled among the tortilla makers, griddles and cannibalized hand mixers sat the blackened and dingy object of my culinary affections. I wondered how it could have ended up here. Perhaps an Italian grandmother had died and whoever settled her estate thought this thing made really bad waffles. Whatever its origins, it was mine. And for all of five dollars. Plus the cost of a new electrical cord. (I went back on the hottest day of the following summer thinking the stars would align again and there would be another one sitting on the shelf. No such luck, not that I technically needed a second. But the thought of a pizzelle iron trophy room, glittering in chrome-plated glory, was an undeniably attractive idea.)
I got home and set to work cleaning, cracking out the liquid soap, the dish rag, the automotive-grade steel wool, the bottle of Turtle Wax liquid chrome polish, but soon noticed that one of the tapered, black bakelite feet was a little loose. I know well enough that turning a screw to the right tightens it, but on upending the iron and turning it around a few times, telling my right from the appliance’s right was anyone’s best guess. So I ventured a guess, made a few turns, and soon heard an ominous “clink” as the foot fell off in my hand and heard the sound of a renegade nut rolling around inside. Turning it right-side up again I stared at my gimpy little pizzelle iron, barely able to maintain its balance. There was no avoiding a trip to the hardware store in order to buy a few tools to crack this thing open.
A few days later and a mile and a half mile walk up to Cherrydale Hardware, I found myself staring at a display case jam-packed with socket wrenches, puzzled by their strange denominations: quarter inch, three-eights of an inch, half inch, three-quarters of an inch. The clerk kindly asked if I needed help and told him I needed a crash course in what these things were.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked.
My mind raced. I mean, could tell him I was fixing a pizzelle iron, but that would require explaining what the thing was, which would then require a description of the beautiful snowflake-like cookies—maybe mention the powdered sugar—and then realize I was standing in a sawdust-and-plywood, mom-and-pop-style hardware store telling a total stranger that I’m repairing a cookie press.
“I’m fixing a waffle iron.” Waffle iron. Yes. With big, muscular Belgian grids ready to churn out hearty breakfast-of-champions-grade golden waffles. It was a perfect fudging of the truth. The clerk instantaneously suggested a quarter inch wrench, which I purchased, along with a five dollar appliance cord, and went home.
The repairs were quick and painless. Soon I had it plugged in and heated until the grids were smoking hot, dropping teaspoonfuls of vanilla-flavored batter and finally making my own cache of cookies. I have since made them up for friends and as table offerings at social gatherings, and there’s a certain sense of pleasure that comes from introducing people to a cookie that always seemed so unique to Italian kitchens. It’s a feeling that just barely trumps the satisfaction of having a personal reserve of pizzelle at home stacked in a popcorn tin that sits beside my favorite chair.