Saturday, December 10, 2011


Artists and food always seem to go together.  An over-used phrase, perhaps, but a true one---and my family of artists is no exception.  My mother, Nancy Dingman Watson, was a writer.  She wrote a long string of distinguished children's books, illustrated by my father Aldren Auld Watson.  Later in her life she moved into adult poetry, and play-writing.  It is easy to find the roots of her love for words in her family heritage.  Professionally, the men were doctors.  The women were social workers, educators, diplomats.  But they were, as well, lovers of words.  Talking.  Reading.  Writing.  As a child, it seemed to me that those tall noisy relatives were always energetically discussing.  Always buried in books.  And writing---well, I have the example of the many literate and entertaining letters that my grandfather wrote to me.  Multiplying that by the number of grandchildren and other relatives with whom he corresponded---he must have been writing every day.
But my mother had another passion---cooking---that her family did not encourage.  She told stories of how she was not allowed, as a child, into the kitchen---that was the live-in cook's domain.  Stories of trying to concoct fudge on the tiny wood cookstove in her playhouse.  But always the yearning to cook.  When my parents married, bought a 100-acre farm in Vermont after WWII, and settled in, I imagine it might have been then that my mother was finally able to truly satisfy this desire.  She became a fabulous cook, with a reputation that must have pleased her enormously.
As we move into this holiday season, I have been thinking often about my mother's delight in cooking.  I remember her from my childhood, at this time of year, baking, baking, baking---scores of cookies, all kinds, all shapes and sizes.  My father decorated wooden sugar buckets for containers.  It was a collaborative activity, just as their books were.  The buckets were then filled with cookies and dispatched to appreciative friends and relatives, near and far.
After my mother died, this battered notebook was put into my hands.  As I held it, I was caught up in memories.  I had given my mother this notebook---new, blank, and pristine---17 years before.  I had written an inscription in the front of it. "To Mom, for Christmas 1984---Fill this full of good things!  Love, Wendy."  And I had fully expected that she would use it for a writing notebook.  After all, she, the writer, was the one who had given me the trick of keeping a notebook under my pillow for capturing those perfect midnight phrases.  She was the one who had given me a favorite writing exercise: "Write a piece that is 26 sentences long.  The first word of the first sentence begins with A.  The first word of the second sentence begins with B.  Etc.  Make one sentence 1 word long.  Make one sentence longer than 100 words."   
I opened the notebook.  On the flyleaf, under my inscription, my mother had written:  "Wendy--when I fill this full of good things I'll give it back!  The New Year, 1990.  Love, Mom." As I turned the pages, I realized---over a period of 11 years my mother HAD filled it with good things.  But the good things were not poems---they were recipes.  Her recipes.  On the very first page was her recipe for "Coffee Cake Wreath".  My mother was a purist---no making it ahead of time and putting it in the freezer.  No, during my childhood my mother got out of bed at 3 am on Christmas morning to start the coffee cake.  Tended it over the next few hours.   And took it out of the oven piping hot and delicious at 8 am, just in time for our Christmas breakfast.  

Dissolve 2 cakes yeast in 1 cup lukewarm milk or water (can substitute dry yeast).  Sift + stir in 1 cup all-purpose flour.  Cover this sponge and let rise in warm place till light, c. 1/2 hour.  Beat 1 cup soft butter.  Add gradually 1/2 cup sugar.  Blend until light + creamy.  Beat in, one at a time, 2 - 3 eggs.  Add 1 tsp salt, 2 tsps grated lemon rind.  Beat in the sponge. Sift and beat in gradually 3 1/2 cups flour.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Add 1/8 cup chopped citron, 1/4 cup raisins or chopped candied pineapple, 1 cup broken nut meats.  Cover bowl and let rise 2 hours or double.  Makes 2 wreaths 9" in diameter.  Roll 1/2 dough in 3 long strips.  Braid, shape; or just put dough in tube pans.  Let rise 1/2 hour, brush top with melted butter. Bake at 350.  [Note:  Our modern flours are more refined than they were 50 or 100 years ago, when this recipe was first concocted.  You may need to increase the amount of flour slightly to produce a manageable dough.]

I will be mixing up my own batch of "Coffee Cake Wreath" for Christmas---though I fear I am NOT a purist, Mother dear.  Instead, as is my wont, I will make it ahead and put it in the freezer...but I'll enjoy it as much as we all ever did, on December 25.


  1. how i would love to sit at your table and share a piece with you. thank you for this beautiful post.

  2. Touching post, lovely mother, lovely daughter. xx

  3. Dear Wendy,
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories. Your mom was such a special woman. I loved her very much.
    love, Nancy

  4. You are right, artists and food go together! I am going to try this coffee cake, sounds wonderful.

  5. You've already heard this, but I'll still add my comment. This is a beautiful story, Wendy!

  6. Wendy: this post touched me deeply, since I recently lost my mom and she and I also shared a love of cooking. Soups were her specialty. Thank you for this, and also for the new recipe, which I need for Christmas morning!

  7. I too will make this for Christmas breakfast. I'll email you a few of my family's Christmas cookie recipes: My mother had many aunts, each of whom baked at Christmas. Several shared her house as widows or unmarried women shetering with the one married aunt of Detroit and her husband who also took in borders. When I was a child my mother, grandmother and aunt kept up some of the vast array of holiday baking.