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.

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