My mother was born just before the Great Depression in a modest home in Medford, Massachusetts. It was a happy family of six children—the oldest and youngest were boys with four girls in between. The sisters shared a bedroom, clothes were handed down one to the next, and secrets were shared under the covers at bedtime. The oldest boy, Jim, was admired and adored, and the youngest, Wally, was fussed over and cosseted by the sisters.
To make ends just about meet during the Depression, my grandmother baked cookies and sent the girls out to sell them in the neighborhood. But these were not just any confection. My grandmother, a wise and talented woman, knew that most of the neighbors were also struggling and would be unlikely to part with any of their scarce resources unless it was teased from their grasp. So she sent her four pretty girls out with her famous chocolate meringues, fresh from the oven, for a penny a piece. According to my mother, the scent of the meringues was captivating, a mixture of cooked sugar, chocolate, and grated coconut that no one could resist. In the winter, the girls carried the trays from the oven in their gloved hands to keep themselves warm while the tantalizing aroma wafted through the neighborhood. Few could resist the smiling young girls or their heavenly treats.
(Grandma Effie Humphrey)
The sisters were not immune to the temptation of the sweets, but they knew how necessary the pennies were to support their family. And my grandmother rewarded each of them with a meringue of their own upon returning with an empty tray and the equivalent number of pennies. My mother remembers walking long distances to sell the last meringue and reap the reward waiting when she got home. It may sound cruel to send children out in the snow to sell cookies, but the sisters loved it, competing to see who could sell the most. They loved talking with the neighbors and were often given a cup of warm milk to keep them going. It was, from a child’s perspective, a game that they were happy to play.
My mother told this story often when I was growing up, but she never made the meringues for us. She made wonderful apple pies and chocolate chip cookies, heavenly beef stews and roast chicken, but never meringues. My grandmother died when my mother was just about ten years old, and my mother never made the meringues afterwards because they were such a poignant symbol of her mother and her childhood. When I was grown and had children of my own, I asked her for the recipe. She sent it to me in her own handwriting. I was pleased that it was easy to make and as delicious as my mother described. But I needed to know if they came up to my grandmother’s standards and my mother’s recollections.
I made a batch of meringues for my mother and waited for the verdict. She said they were very good, but the taste could not compete with her memory of the warm trays, the cold air, the enticing smell of forbidden sweets, and the smile on her mother’s face. Some recipes are best left in our memories.
Joan M. Harper is the author of Cooking with Adrienne: A Story of Friendship and Food.
Effie Humphrey’s Heavenly Chocolate Meringues
2 egg whites
1 c. sugar
pinch of salt
2 squares (2 oz.) unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. shredded coconut
Preheat oven 350 F.
Beat egg whites until stiff.
Add sugar gradually and a pinch of salt.
Add chocolate, vanilla extract, and coconut.
Drop by tablespoons onto greased or lined cookie sheet.
Bake for 10 - 12 minutes; they should be firm but not browned.
Continue baking for a few more minutes if necessary.
Remove to rack and allow to cool.