Friday, January 21, 2011

Cookies for Sale - then and now

My daughter is a new Brownie. The girls' movement is called Girl Scouts in the US and each time, I slip up and say "Girl Guides", as they are called in Singapore. I was in NCC (National Cadet Corps) and while it is somewhat of a 'betrayal' to sign her up for Brownies, I still find a uniformed girls' group a healthy distraction which fosters team spirit and instills a sense of mission.

As a new Brownie, my daughter had to sell Girl Scout cookies (I am still taking orders!). It was an opportunity for me to coach her in her sales skills, leveraging my training at M&M/Mars. My daughter would become the third generation salesperson in my family - my dad having been a popular sales manager at Fraser and Neave. Before her selling stint, my husband and I prepped her in her arithmetic to ensure that she did not embarrass herself at his hedge fund - thus diminishing any hope of interning there someday. We practiced multiplication and addition relentlessly before we paraded her out to the trading desk. After hawking her cookie order sheet for three hours straight and earning $800 on her own, the poor girl fell asleep in the cab on the way home.

In all this time, I could not help but reminisce about my mother's cookies season. In a previous generation, during the weeks leading up to Christmas and Chinese New Year, housewives like my mother used their time to bake and sell. It was a 'cottage industry' that sprung up and took a life of its on during this period, just like the Girl Scout cookies season.

Every year, about eight weeks before Chinese New Year, my mother baked cookies and sold them to friends and regular customers. She took down orders when her friends phoned her for a chitchat, she penciled them into an old exercise book and summed up the bill in her head.

All year round, these same clientele would collect empty Marie biscuit and Ovaltine tins, and Horlicks bottles. These containers would be sent over to our home to be recycled by my mother. She would soak and rinse them to remove the labels, then use them to store her product. During her baking season, she would wake up at 4am every morning to take the blocks of Buttercup butter out of our second refrigerator, to thaw them on the dining table. These sat alongside the stack of square cardboard trays of brown eggs. By 4pm, the aroma of freshly baked cookies would waft through the entire corner block of our street, Yarrow Gardens.

My mother produced a range of biscuits - cashew cookies, almond cookies, those with names such as Daisies, Dominoes, Cat's Tongues and Cheeselets. She made the traditional Kueh Bangkit and the madeleine-like Kueh Bolu. But she 'outsourced' the more complicated Kueh Belanda loveletters. The most popular item that she made were her pineapple tarts. She took several days to jam fresh pineapples, pricking her fingers several times in due course. My mother possessed a large and deep brass cauldron that was used to simmer the pineapple. The contact with the brass helped the jam achieve the deep golden hue. Family members and friends came by to snip the tart pastry. The old-fashioned tarts were actually not tarts as we know them...they were ovoid in shape with a fine tip at one end. The ladies used manicure scissors to snip the surface to achieve little needle-like pinches. It left one to imagine that they were pineapples - which they were meant to be. Someone once remarked that they looked like porcupines. Because the snipping was so tedious and laborious, my mother did fewer and fewer of these "porcupine tarts" as she got older. The snipping just worsened the unforgiving arthritis affecting the older helpers.

As a child, I had to arrange the cookies in each bottle. Each layer was lined with specially cut out rounds of tracing paper. The bottles were sealed with white masking tape and labeled by pencil. My mother also cut out intricate designs using red paper, which she then glued to the top of each lid. The various orders were assembled into sturdy brown paper bags and she would never fail to throw in a small free bottle of cookies. She was so generous with her giveaways that I often wondered if she baked for profit or for sheer love.

My mother had a clear time table as to when to make certain items and in what order. The cookies came first, followed by pickles, the tarts and then the cakes. I suspect this was to preserve the freshness of the goods accordingly.

My mother used to nag at all of us daughters for not bothering to learn the tricks of her trade. In fact, she was right. By the time she died, we had no idea how to operate the precious Baby Belling oven which was only used to bake Kueh Lapis Spekkoek. The oven must have given up on us and decided to blow itself out one Chinese New Year morning, perhaps as a stern reminder of how much we had neglected it during that baking season.

Friday, January 14, 2011


The Parents League invited me to write another article for them. I wrote this one night after listening to Christmas carols. It was recently published in the PL newsletter. We loved our trip so much that it was the theme for our Christmas card this year and it generated many curious questions. For those of you thinking of places to go to for Spring Break.....

Here's the article:

Acquaintances had mixed reactions when they heard that we were contemplating a trip to Jerusalem. Their reaction often depended on their own personal experiences in relation to the many years of political strife that has afflicted this region in the Middle East. Some were descended from refugees who had to leave after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Yet others were thrilled that we were visiting, these either celebrated their Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall or themselves grew up there.

Before we left for our trip, we made sure to prepare our little children, ages three and six, for the biblical places they were about to visit. We took out our children’s bible. We contrasted the page that depicted the Nativity scene with an actual photo from the Eyewitness guide of the modern day Church of the Nativity, to emphasize that it had been many years since the manger was last there and that in its place was a concrete floor with a large star insert.

On a more practical note, it is wiser to visit Jerusalem in the fall and spring season. When we visited, we were on the cusp of spring entering summer and were subject to some scorching heat when we made our daytrips. We also made sure to bring ‘respectable’ attire for visiting places of worship – skirts below the knees for ladies, pants an even better bet.

We were advised to get in touch with a tour guide before we arrived in Jerusalem, particularly if we wanted to make our way to Bethlehem. The latter city, known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is a mere half an hour’s ride by car. These days, it is part of the Palestinian Authority and is walled up and has its own security and immigration checkpoints. The guide, a Palestinian Christian, met us at our hotel and drove us into Bethlehem. Because he does this on a frequent basis, he was able to get us through the checkpoints with relative ease.

The famous Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity, is possibly the size of the fountain courtyard in Lincoln Center. It is helpful to get a guide who can explain the sites and the history behind them. For a start, many would wonder if these sites are the exact biblical locations. We were told that Constantine’s mother, Helena, instructed that monumental churches be built over these locations a few hundred years after Christ’s death. These locations – for example, of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and entombment - were based on oral accounts handed down through the generations.

We also visited the Shepherds’ Field and were able to address an age-old question. If indeed the weather was cold, how could these shepherds possibly be out on the slopes in the middle of the night to witness angels singing to them? Surely Christmas did not take place during the winter. We were then told that the shepherds built caves set into the slopes of the hills and in which they kept warm with fire. Hence, Christmas could still very well have taken place in the winter.

We based our three-day itinerary centered on our familiarity with the characters and stories from the biblical New Testament. In that, we visited the birthplace and crucifixion site of Jesus, the Shepherds’ Field, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mary’s home and the Stations of the Cross. Yet, we were so intrigued by the richness of this small geographical area and vowed that we would revisit Jerusalem once again after we familiarized ourselves with stories from the Old Testament, particularly about King David.

We experienced the celebrations at the Western Wall on a Sabbath evening and were filled with awe at the coming together of a small slice of the Jewish Diaspora, literally with their chairs and shofar. We also learnt about the observance of the Sabbath in a very practical way – the fact that food is often served cold on a Saturday evening because cooking is not allowed until after sundown. And talking about food, it soon became very apparent that this was indeed a “Land of Milk and Honey” judging by an abundance of fresh and colorful food, glorious sunshine and beauty.

We could also hear the muezzins’ call ringing through the Old City, reminding us that this was indeed a land shared not only by Christians and Jews but also by Muslims as well. We were sensitive to the political landscape and sought to understand the coexistence and the tension that persists in some form or another among the three communities. This was most apparent in the fact that the old city, still walled after all these years, are divided into the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian and the Armenian.

Personally for me, a busy mother rushing around New York City, I felt that I could finally fathom the current international affairs by seeing firsthand the epicenter right here in Jerusalem.

Because of the threat of terrorism, airport security is taken very seriously. The hotel suggested that we obtain the services of an airport facilitator who would greet us on arrival at the tarmac and clear us through immigration, answering any difficult questions that the officers might have. We also decided to retain such services upon our departure and at the end, felt that it worthwhile to do so. We had not expected, on our way out, to be grilled about places we had visited, whom we might have met, what souvenirs we had bought and the manner by which we had picked or purchased them.

By having experienced this land for ourselves, we emerged the richer for having visited a fabled area that has captured the imagination and passion of people for thousands of years, where blood, sweat and tears illustrate the tremendous love that different religions and cultures have for this land…and which possibly is also the root of why they fight over it in the first place. We are now more cognizant of the various peoples who call Jerusalem home, if not now, at least once upon a time. We can relate to the stories we read in the bible and put in perspective the scale of the Temple once built by King Solomon, and the beauty and ironically peaceful landscape of the Mount of Olives. Visiting this land, called Holy by three of the world’s most influential religions, is a lifetime’s opportunity not to be missed.

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