My recipe for Melt-in-the-Mouth Cookies came from one of my mom’s handwritten recipe cards, which my dad scanned and emailed to me back when I was in college. I transcribed it and then posted it to my blog in June of 2004 so I could easily share it with friends (and the internet).
As long as I can remember, they have been my favorite cookies, and certainly one of the most popular in our family. The cookies come out of the oven slightly chewy, brown sugary, and small enough that you can eat more than one or two without feeling guilty. In that way they stand out from most other cookies, which tend to be more chocolatey or more filling.
Since I posted the recipe, I’ve gotten the occasional drive-by comment from people saying this is one of their favorite recipes, one they had lost and were happy to rediscover. Considering that I got this recipe from my mother and she got it from her mother (my grandmother, aka “Grandmommy”), I didn’t see how that was possible. I just attributed their comments to a similar recipe or a similar name. For all I knew, my grandmother had created this recipe from whole cloth through relentless experimentation, or perhaps accidental discovery.
And then on December 10, 2008, a certain Donna left a comment on my blog which began:
I love these cookies and so do my kids. My mother-in-law made them and she got the recipe from The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia Cookbook Volume 3…
What? My favorite cookie recipe was actually printed somewhere in a cookbook? It was like one of those cinematic moments where you find out something that you believed all your life to be true is actually false. I mean, obviously the recipe must have come from somewhere, but I’d always thought of it as a cherished family heirloom, from the “old country”, passed down from mother to child all the way back. This was OUR cookie recipe.
However, I couldn’t help myself from searching around for the cookbook. Eventually I discovered a similarly titled Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Volume 3, published in 1965, for sale on eBay. For all I knew this book had some other cookie recipe that Donna was confusing with my sacred Melt-in-the-Mouths. I will admit that my curiosity was piqued by the fact that all the recipes in Volume 3 started with the letter C: Chicken, Chocolate, Corn, Cheese, Cookies…
For a mere $6 on eBay, it was worth the risk. It arrived just after Christmas, and right there on page 433 was MY Melt-in-the-Mouth Cookies recipe. It matched my mom’s recipe card almost word for word. I could even spot it in the lower right of a photo of a dozen cookies on an earlier page—like a cookie time capsule from 1965! I was blown away.
One thing didn’t add up. My mom seems to have remembered growing up with these cookies, but at the time this cookbook series was published, she would have been 14 years old. Perhaps it was published in Woman’s Day magazine early on, and then later compiled into this encyclopedic series of cookbooks? So I did something I never thought to do before, I did Google search for “melt-in-the-mouth cookies”. Sure enough I discovered a woman named Chrissy who had posted it to her blog just last December (of 2007). The best part was that alongside the recipe she had included a high resolution scan of a well-worn magazine page with the recipe. She wrote:
This particular recipe has been a Christmas favorite with my family since I can remember Christmas cookies. I believe it was my Grandmother who clipped this page along with a few others from a magazine who knows when. I’m going to guess it was a Women’s Day magazine because it says Women’s Day Kitchen, but you never know.
Could this have been the magazine my Grandmother was reading when Melt-in-the-Mouth cookies first entered our family’s culinary repertoire? Could there be other family recipes that originated from these very pages? According to Wikipedia, Woman’s Day was originally sold exclusively in A&P grocery stores, which my mom confirmed was where they did their grocery shopping while she was growing up.
Since Chrissy’s scan had no page numbers or dates, I called the San Francisco Public Library, thinking I could spend a weekend flipping through old Woman’s Day magazines to find it. Unfortunately they only had microfiche for Woman’s Day going back to 1971. They basically told me to call the New York Public Library’s Express service, who might be able to research the recipe for me, albeit for a fee.
So I called the NYPL, and eventually a librarian got back to me and let me know that their service costs $60/hour. I described what I was looking for (a recipe from Woman’s Day magazine from sometime in the 1950s) and that I probably didn’t want to have them spend any more than 2 hours. He seemed a little incredulous that it would even be possible, given that I couldn’t narrow down the possible dates. I said I’d email him all the details I had.
As I started thinking about how to narrow down the search (so that my $120 would be well spent), I thought back to what Chrissy had emailed me when I asked her if the cookie recipe clipping had page numbers or dates. She wrote:
The rest of the pages looked just like the ones I scanned in, they had no other information other than to say “Woman’s Day Kitchen”, the recipes themselves, 4 per page with that garishly festive color scheme.
I looked back at her scan of the recipes. I looked closer. Green and red. Ornaments. Peppermint Sticks! How had I overlooked these details before?
Of course! These recipes must have come from a December issue—they were Christmas cookies! In a flash I’d reduced the search space from 120 magazines down to a mere 10! With those kind of odds, why not just check to see if anyone on eBay was selling old 1950s Woman’s Day magazines from the month of December.
Sure enough there were a few issues from the 50s available for $5-10 a piece. I figured I’d just ask the sellers if their magazines contained the recipe. If not, nothing lost, if so, I’d buy the magazine—all for a fraction of the NYPL Express service. It was like I was crowdsourcing my research through eBay and getting it done for free. And if I found the recipe, I would actually end up with a physical copy of the whole magazine!
So I made a list of years from 1940 through 1960, and started checking them off as I sent the sellers questions. 44, 47, 51, 53…I looked closer at the cover for December 1953. It had a photo of a little girl looking up with indescribable glee as Christmas cookies rain down on her. The only text on the cover read,
in this December issue…
ready to cut out–
a Christmas Cookie Cookbook
with 24 top recipes
When I saw that cover I felt exactly like the little girl looked. Could this be the one? I sent the link to Chrissy who immediately recognized some of the cookies on the cover from her other clippings. In fact she said she had “all 24 recipes, 3 pages, back and front, with four each.” So I went ahead and ordered a copy. Eventually I got confirmation from one of the magazine sellers that the December 1953 issue contained the Melt-in-the-Mouth recipes. Indeed it did. Success!
But wait—where did my mom copy her recipe card from? Her wording (at the very top of the post) matches the 1965 cookbook recipe almost exactly, not the simplified version from the 1953 clipping. Did my Grandmother originally start making the recipe from the clipping, and only later purchased the 12 volume Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery? My mom didn’t seem to remember my Grandmother having a multi-volume set of cookbooks.
To help answer this question, I had my mom enlist my aunt, who lives near my grandmother, to search through her cookbooks and clippings in order to find her original Melt-in-the-Mouth recipe—presumably the one my mom copied long ago. My aunt found it pasted to a sheet of looseleaf paper along with several other “family” recipes, scanned it in, and emailed it to us. And now we have a third published copy of the recipe to add to the story.
This time I have even fewer details to go on. My guess is that it came from a 1940s era Woman’s Day, probably from another December issue, given the pine dingbat below the title. The recipe matches the 1965 version almost word for word, except for an additional bit about how much brown sugar to use if it’s granulated instead of packed. In order to track this version down, I’ll probably have to stop by the New York Public Library myself. In the meantime, I can only speculate on the one remaining mystery: where did Woman’s Day get the recipe from?
Update, January 31, 2009: After I posted the brief history above, I started searching for someone at Woman’s Day (or Hachette Filipacchi) who might be interested in tracking the recipe further. I found a few email addresses, but got no response. So I decided to intensify my efforts by guessing the email address of Woman’s Day’s editor-in-chief, Jane Chesnutt. It worked. She forwarded my email along to Suzan Schaefer, who emailed back the following:
Hi, I found your recipe. It was in the Dec 1964 Collectors Cookbook in Woman’s Day. When I was looking for your recipe, I went through every December issue from 1937 to 1952 and it wasn’t in any of them. It would have come from the kitchen here. They did all the recipes and tested them just as we do today.
Wow, thank you Suzan! Mystery solved. So turns out it didn’t come from the 1940s as I speculated. The reason the quality of my aunt’s scan looked so old was because it was printed on rough paper stock. I decided to buy a copy of the magazine just for the pleasure of traveling back in time 45 years to the moment when my grandmother presumably first stumbled upon Melt-in-the-Mouth cookies. Of course my mom would have been 13 at the time, so either her memory of “growing up with these cookies” is faulty, or my grandmother originally started making the cookies after seeing them in the December 1953 issue (when my mom would have only been 2), and then later pulled the page from the December 1964 Collectors Cookbook include in her archives.
You might recognize the annotated photo on the left, it’s the same one they used on page 430 of the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Volume 3.
And here is the original source of my grandmother’s Melt-in-the-Mouth Cookies clipping: the bottom-right of page 57 and the top-left of page 58, from the December 1964 issue of Woman’s Day, in the Collector’s Cook Book, subtitled “The Merrie Christmas Cookie Book”.
Update, April 8, 2009: Thanks to Cary in the comments, I picked up a copy of the Woman’s Day Cookie Cook Book, published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications, Inc. which also has a copy of the Melt-in-the-Mouth cookie recipe on page 72. Neat.
Update, February 9, 2019: Thanks to Joe in the comments, the recipe also appeared in Woman’s Day from December 23, 1980 (15 years after the last known printing in The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia Cookbook at the top), split across pages 144 and 146 which I combined together in the image below. Oddly they shortened the name to Melt-in-Mouth Cookies (dropping the “the”) and in the ingredients they list “baking soda” instead of the traditional “baking powder”, though in the instructions they reference baking powder, so I’m assuming baking soda was a typo. (As an aside, according to ThoughtCo in The Difference Between Baking Soda and Baking Powder, baking soda needs an acid for it to leaven, and according to Serious Eats in Cookie Science: The Real Differences Between Brown and White Sugars, the bitter molasses in brown sugar provides the acid, so perhaps baking soda would work…?) They also left off the 1/2 teaspoon of salt—I wonder if that’s because their readers were predominantly using salted butter/margarine, or more likely, their readers had become newly anxious (as of the late-70s) about their salt intake (see: Scientific American’s It’s Time to End the War on Salt), but not their cookie intake?