Our son seems to be getting mushy and sentimental. He did just turn 30, which is strange enough. Nothing makes a man want to do something that didn’t used to matter (like coming home) so much as being told it is a bad idea, terribly ill-advised, so evidently he is missing this island. He sent word that he wanted the gingerbread recipes — both of them, mom’s and dad’s.

I married a man who bakes cakes, so the union brought together two collections of recipes, and the kids grew up knowing that there was such a thing as mom’s chocolate cake and dad’s chocolate cake, mom’s applesauce cake and dad’s (the latter being also mom’s birthday cake, with its own story filled with mush and one-room-schoolteacher pioneer spirit and just a little subterfuge). Mom’s chocolate cake came from Marie Johanson’s community cookbook, and had coffee in it, and is black as coal and cheap and adaptable. Dad’s chocolate cake is well-known to island school kids of a generation ago, and to the denizens of the South Portland nursing home and the little old ladies of Portland Friends Meeting back when our baker was still working for Central Maine Power and riding his bicycle to work. More to the point, we also each had a gingerbread recipe.

I do not remember the origin of my recipe, but I used to bake it when I ran a little breakfast-and-dessert concession at my grandmother’s campground prior to my posting as teacher on Matinicus. The recipe is sticky and sweet and strong of spice — ginger obviously, plenty of the ubiquitous cinnamon, cloves, and a bit of black pepper. The corners tend to burn and it deserves a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside.

Paul’s recipe is attributed to one of the great many aunts around whom he grew up, his dad being one of 11, most of whom stayed in the area (meaning the small children were hopelessly surrounded both by family recipes and hawk-eyed observation). That recipe, involving neither cloves nor pepper, yields a reliable spice cake which is easier to pick up with one hand and eat on the fly or, perhaps, pack in a lunch box.

There is also a family tradition of molasses ginger cookies known to my brother and me as “Ernie cookies.” These are potentially ginger snaps, although the cookies are arguably even better when right out of the oven and still soft, or somehow magically kept flexible (or it’s wicked foggy). When my brother Ben and I were little, “Sesame Street” was new and we enjoyed the show for its humor even though we had already learned our letters. The characters — Cookie Monster obviously, but others as well, including Ernie — seemed to indulge in a great many perfectly round, plain, disc-shaped cookies which crumbled theatrically to bits when chomped too boisterously. Our mom’s gingersnaps were exactly like this and have been “Ernie cookies” for the past 50 years. More recently a somewhat larger version of this cookie became hands-down the single most popular thing I sold all summer in my little seasonal bakery on this island. Thanks there to Matthew R., now of Rockland but originally from New Hampshire, who first requested a ginger cookie while visiting Matinicus as a boy. I had no idea they’d be so popular. Some days they’d out-sell the chocolate chip cookies, if you can believe that.

With two varieties of gingerbread cake in the family, and this cookie, I never got around to perfecting the art of architectural gingerbread, i.e., the structurally sound slabs measured in board-feet for the construction of gingerbread houses. I welcome advice from the right sort of engineers.

Paul might tell the story, as he bakes his family gingerbread, of Grandfather and Inky. Grandfather Murray (with the aforementioned 11 kids) had a liking for gingerbread — the cake kind — as an old man, but after a certain age Grandmother Murray decided she was retired. I suppose it could be that after cooking for 11 children and what probably seemed like the rest of civilization or at least Cape Elizabeth, of which place they were natives (there used to be such people), she was, as she declared, tired. Grandfather was told she didn’t really have the energy to hop to just because he was in the mood for a gingerbread. “Well, Inky,” he said to his dog, “I guess we’re going to have to make our own gingerbread,” as he got up from his chair and headed the short distance over to the IGA store where he bought one of those kits, “Jiffy” or whatever cake mix they might have had in the late 1950s. He made the gingerbread and from what we’ve heard, Inky got half.

I wonder what he’d have thought of the black pepper.

G I N G E R   C O O K I E S

This recipe makes 36-40 3" cookies
Cream together:
112 cups Crisco
2 cups sugar
Mix in
2 eggs
12 cup molasses
Add (ideally through a sieve to catch any lumps)
4 cups flour
12 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking soda
3 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. cloves
Mix to combine thoroughly (I do it by hand). Roll into balls, any size you like — can do really big ones, size of pool balls, or delicate little snaps. Roll balls in sugar, place well-separated on baking pans (use parchment paper or lightly grease the pans). Bake at 350 degrees until flat and crinkly — but I recommend taking these out of the oven when they seem just a tiny bit underdone, as these are easy to overcook and the bottoms scorch easily. They will continue baking on the pans, so remove immediately if they are getting too dark.

These keep a long time and are great for mailing to friends.