Great Gram’s Sugar Cookies

Some jokes precede the World Wide Web! It’s true, though some have been updated. For instance, we used to ask, “What do cats call mice on roller skates?” instead of skateboards, but the answer was the same: “Meals on wheels!” I think that it was a pretty new joke when I was a kid, but my dad taught me this riddle that he learned when he was a boy: “What has ears but can’t hear?” The answer, of course, is a cornfield. I thought it was pretty neat and shared it with my friends.

The ancient Romans enjoyed some of the same jokes that now float around cyberspace. Here’s a pretty good one: A senator walks into the barbershop. The barber asks, “How would you like your hair cut?” and the senator replies, “In silence.” Probably a bad day at the forum.

Like jokes, recipes have been around long before the invention of the World Wide Web, and indeed even before the invention of paper. Three clay tablets from Babylon written nearly 3,800 years ago are the oldest cookbooks discovered up to now. They record twenty-five recipes for preparing different kinds of meats and vegetables.

The biggest difference between then and now is that today common folks like us can read while only the very highest classes of people in Babylon could read even really important things like King Hammurabi’s code of law. The recipes may have been written down so the grandson of Hammurabi could have a royal scribe read the instructions to the cook. “Tell him to make it just like grandpa’s cook did it, or I’ll have him sent to the mines.”

Today we can find hundreds of recipes for sugar cookies just by tapping our computer trackpad or mouse. Most of us like to recall that perfect sugar cookie Mom made when we were little and think of it as the original and best sugar cookie of all. But Shakespeare probably felt the same way about his mother’s sugar cookies, since “sugar cakes” were popular in Elizabethan England.

More recently, our first three Presidents, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, all enjoyed varieties of sugar cookies. Though only the rich could afford them until modern times, sugar cookies have been popular since sugar was first crystalized in India more than 1,600 years ago.

Perhaps it is enough to paraphrase the slogan of Composer’s Datebook broadcast on National Public Radio by reminding each other that “All sugar cookie recipes were once new.” Here is an old one that is new to me. Our neighbor Jill found the recipe in a St. Croix county AARP newsletter, and I asked her to share it after she tempted us with a plateful.

The recipe is from Sharon Fregine, who has been cooking for her friends and neighbors at the Woodville Senior Center for over twenty years. This is her recipe for Great Gram’s Sugar Cookies.


4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 cup butter
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract


Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and cream of tarter into a bowl. Put the sugars, butter and oil into another bowl. Use a wooden spoon to cream them together until they are light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and flavoring.

Stir the flour mixture into the liquid ingredients a cup at a time and beat thoroughly. Use a spatula to form the dough into a ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375º.

Use a small cookie scoop to drop the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet or form balls with about two tablespoons of dough for each cookie.

Put a couple of tablespoons of sugar on a saucer. Lightly butter a glass, dip it in the sugar on the saucer and use the glass to flatten the balls. Bake for about ten minutes.

NOTES: Jill uses a mug with a concave bottom to flatten the balls. Be careful not to bake the cookies too long. They should just barely begin to brown on the edges.

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