In the last few weeks, I've been getting text messages from my brother, who is finding out what it's like to have to cook for himself (or, for him and our sister Katie) on a regular basis. To call this monumental would not be an overstatement, believe me.
Tonight's revelation was that they intend to make "Mom's cookies" sometime in the near future. Cookies are a treat, though they were certainly a staple when I was growing up - Mom's Cookie Monster cookie jar was usually full. My mother's cookies were world-famous - meaning that our extended family always requested them at holidays, and friends raided the cookie jar whenever they could. Everyone wanted her recipe, and she would smirk a little when revealing that it was just the Toll House recipe, made with the sugar substitute fructose. She also used butter-flavored Crisco, a habit I think developed from that WWII rationing mentality that her mother undoubtedly had in spades (take a look sometime at the housewife cookbooks of the era - shortening is in everything!).
I started making Mom's cookies when I was still in college; I considered it one of those passages to adulthood to be able to make my own chocolate chip cookies. I have altered Mom's method a bit, too. I stopped using fructose in cookies when I couldn't find it in the stores any longer, and opted for various sugar substitutes over time. One thing I can caution is never to use Splenda for baking, it just tastes so much different; I like baking with Truvia. I also always use real butter. I'm more likely to make "cookie cake" (the pan cookie variation on the back of your Toll House chocolate chip bag) and for that I use real sugar like Mom did. For chemical reasons unknown, sugar substitutes don't work as well in the pan cookies.
When Joe sent tonight's text about the cookies, I was tempted to launch into this explanation for him. I did tell him I use a different sugar substitute than Mom did, and he laughed at me and said that was blasphemy. I smiled. He'll figure it out, or he won't. Mom's traditions and habits worked for her at the time she was doing them - not all of them work for us, or should. And we can invoke the same flavor with just a little tweak, maybe even improve on it. Change can be a good thing, I want to tell him. But I do understand. How many bowls of cookie dough did we lick clean, how many times did we sit in the kitchen while she stirred, how many chocolate chips did we poach from the open bags? Making Mom's cookies is like inviting her back into the room.
In the end, there really isn't a substitute for that.