Nina May’s Christmas Cookies | How America Eats

We’re in Kansas where Clementine Paddleford is gathering stories and recipes for her classic America cookbook, How America Eats (1960). Here’s what she has to say:

Anyone growing up in Abilene, Kansas, has what the Midwest calls a “goodly heri­tage.” There the prairie is always within sight and sound, a landscape lovely in its wide monotony. It’s a place where neighbor is a common word, where caste or race doesn’t count.

It’s a place where lunch is the fillingest meal, supper almost as ample, this supple­mented by the bedtime snack. It’s a place where the best recipes are hand-downs from mothers to daughters, from neighbor to neighbor along with those country counting­out rhymes which children teach to children.

These are the things Mrs. Robert Gemmill told me about her home town the day I went there, one purpose in mind, to borrow her recipes for the Christmas cookies. I had been eating these cookies, a few each holiday, over a period of years. They were known to me only as “Nina May’s present,” a box sent annually to our friend Alice Nichols who has always carried a few to my house to share.

“Just thought you’d like some of Nina May’s cookies,” Alice will say handing me a a packet. As I arrange cookies on plate, Alice explains, “That one she called a Billy Goat, don’t ask me why, maybe because it has that whiskery look. These little bundles are cocoons and these with the red and green cherries are the Swedish sweets.”

Nina May is an Abilene girl; she has lived there always, her grandparents before her. Grandpa, W.D. Nichols, was mayor of the town for twelve consecutive years. She lives in his old home, built in 1880 by an Episcopalian minister, sold, then resold, going to her grandfather in 1910.

The Gemmills took it over in 1945, remodeled and refurnished it with antiques. All except the kitchen. This room is fourteen by fourteen feet, done in yellow and blue with everything “latest.” Family and friends, everybody gravitates toward the kitchen as naturally as water toward a dam.

When I asked Nina May would she part with her cookie recipes, she said, “I’d love to, but of course these aren’t really mine. I’ve borrowed them from friends.” Next to collecting antiques, Nina May told me, she enjoys collecting recipes.

These Christmas cookies she makes by the dozens to go into gift packs. She can’t remember where she picked up the spicy Billy Goats. The Christmas cookies are from Mrs. Annie Engle who lives in Abilene … oh, years ago. When Nina May was little she played with the Engle tribe and loved these cookies their mother made around Christmastime. It was after she married that she went to Mrs. Engle, who had moved, to get the recipe. The cocoons are from Mrs. Thornton Scott who lives next door. The Swedish cookies are from friend Mrs. Henry Leonard, Jr.”

—Clementine Paddleford, How America Eats (1960)

The recipes:

MRS. LEONARD’S SWEDISH CHRISTMAS COOKIES

MRS. THORNTON SCOTT’S COCOONS

MRS. ENGLE’S CHRISTMAS COOKIES

HOLIDAY “BILLY-GOATS”