These “Fancy” Store-Bought Cookies Helped Me Bond with My Grandma
Like many fond food memories, this one begins with a grandmother. I was just 6 and already a world traveler. My family had just returned from England, where my father had been stationed and my brother had been recently born, and I was going to spend the summer in California with my grandmother. A tiny woman, she was my father’s mother, a feisty Mexican American with nearly as much energy and zest for life as I had myself.
We did so many wonderful and memorable things that summer and often, after an afternoon of swimming or playing in the park, we would come home to tea and cookies. She made me a special milky brew (that she probably waved a tea bag over), and we drank from cups that had their own plates underneath. And as for the cookies? They were inevitably Pepperidge Farm Dark Chocolate Milanos — each one no more than a couple bites’ worth of crisp cookie and rich chocolate — stylishly served on a porcelain plate.
My grandmother wasn’t traditionally domestic; many of the women in my family are not. She sold real estate and went to the gym before it was cool. She liked her cookies pre-made and sophisticated. She might have broken out something like wedding cookies, cinnamon cookies, or chunky shortbread if she had been feeling nostalgic. But she wouldn’t have baked them herself, and during the summer we did as little cooking as possible anyway.
We’d sip our tea and munch on our Milano cookies, with their chocolate middles in a sweet crispy jacket, out on the deck in the shade of the house looking out onto the flowers in the yard; thoughtful in the crunch, reflective in the flood of sweet chocolate goodness.
That late-afternoon rendezvous was our own transitional island, where we paused for a moment before moving into the evening with its laundry, tidying up, dinner prep, and watering the flowers. Between bites we evaluated our day and shared our favorite parts. Maybe she’d agree that Becky had pushed me at the pool or I might concede that whining for a candy bar in the grocery store hadn’t been my finest moment. The tea and cookies kind of equalized us; we both came to the table with our afternoon peckish-ness and our own worthy version of events. As we watched the birds dive in and out of the climbing clematis, we drank tea from fragile cups and took shatteringly delicious bites of our cookies.
It’s been more than sixty years since that summer with my grandmother in San Francisco, but I will never forget the summer we spent together. As it turned out I never had another opportunity to spend as much time with my grandmother again. As the fall approached I rejoined my mom and dad in another posting, this one in Texas. Life took up its ordinary boundaries again. I went to (another) new school and came home in the afternoon to graham crackers and milk.
And maybe that is why Milano cookies will always hold a special place in my heart and in my kitchen. I can’t pull them out of the package, wrapped like little gifts in a pleated white paper wrapper, and not remember that summer. The crispy, slightly sweet, toasted oblong biscuits filled with decadent chocolate still whisper to me of a promise of social grace, quiet elegance, and the gift of conversation.
Tea, I now know, is a social construct, a civilizing event, a time for conversation or simple reflection. It’s a time when the pull of to-do lists and the nagging sense of a deadline looming nearby are set aside for a few moments of peaceful sweetness.
These days, on an afternoon when I make myself a cup of tea — a bit stronger than the one my grandmother made me — I have a strong sense of taking care of myself, which I know she would have appreciated. I take it out into my garden and sit on the patio, soak up the sound of not-too-distant birdsong, and enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers. I eat a couple of cookies, sip my tea, and my world becomes simple again. Hot tea, crisp Milano cookies, and memory lane; it gives me a renewed sense of well-being.
Do you have a snack you’ve loved for decades? Tell us about it in the comments below.