My job in the production of Christmas jam-dot shortbread cookies was to dip them hot-from-the-oven with their thumb-print craters filled with jam the temperature of molten lava, into a deep bowl of icing sugar. It felt like silk between my fingers, slippery and soothing. After dipping three cookies, my fingers were coated in 1/8 inch of compacted icing sugar. I licked it off while waiting for the next batch to cool enough to dip them in their first layer of sugar. They had to be completely cool before dipping again, covering the cookies thoroughly. While I waited I ate one. I wasn’t scolded.
By the time I was done, my tongue was growing a sugar canker and my fingers were puckered from sucking the sugar off. Each cookie looked like a bloodshot eyeball.
My dad called them “kookies” in his sweet Scottish brogue. Try saying “cookie” like you’re Sean Connery after you’ve sipped five martinis. Say it like you’re learning this new word that North Americans use for “biscuits”. It comes out slow, like two separate words – “koo key”. I remember he didn’t like them much after his abused liver began rebelling. I didn’t know he had cirrhosis but I was awfully happy to get more koo keys.
Our house was kooky at Christmas. It was the rye whisky. The best thing about my dad’s preferred poison was the velvet bags holding each bottle. I wanted to keep them as sleeping bags for my huge collection of Barbie dolls, which, at its peak, was nearly forty wasp-waisted, swan necked, buxom beauties – excluding Skipper and Ken, of course.
Wise or worried, or a bit of both, my mother forbade me from keeping what I thought would be elegant sleeping bags for my treasures. Forty Barbies, each regally swaddled in faux-velvet, purple sacks emblazoned with “Seagram’s Crown Royal” might have been too many potent reminders of a problem in our house.
It was a constant terrible temptation because I found the bags all over the house – in the closet where I thought my Christmas presents were hidden; in my dad’s dress shoes; and under the hazelnut tree in the back yard. Our house extruded pretty booze bottles. I loved the faceted ones that looked like fancy Waterford crystal cut with diamond shapes. The bottles reminded me of my mother’s perfume which she arranged on a 12” mirror on her dresser, alluring liquid gleaming, promising more than a scented bosom. When I was 11, I pulled a couple of the Rye bottles from the garbage can, asking if I could clean them and use them as vases. “No” was the answer.
It occurs to me now why we never had fruit-cake at Christmas time. The brandy would have soaked more than the fruit. No loss, really. Who wants a candied cherry door-stop anyway? But somehow, the koo key tradition continues.
It’s kooky that I still love jam-dot shortbread cookies and kookier still that my kids love them, too. They don’t see bloodshot eyeballs and whisky bottles refracting light from their hiding places. They see cookies that are made only at Christmas time – koo keys that they make us all happy.