It Wouldn't Be Christmas Without Them

Kay Harper 


© Copyright 2015 by Kay Harper

Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

Moma and I were baking an imaginary cake in the church kindergarten’s pint-sized kitchen when Daddy and the boys poked their heads in. “Ready?” Daddy asked with a grin. Moma replied with a little let’s-get-outa-here jig. Soon we were back in the car, skipping out on big peoples’ church to go on a family adventure. We stopped at home just long enough to put on our play clothes then drove to the grove of pecan trees out north of town.

 Our Chevy cruised along the November countryside. In the distance, trees appeared to dance in the crisp autumn breeze. They were like ancient giants with their arms flung high overhead, so high it looked as if they could touch the sky. When we arrived, their long swaying branches greeted us with a deafening silence.

There was a shiver in the air, and we saw our breath as we got out of the car. Daddy got the floppy old blanket from the trunk and spread it out on the ground. “Now, I’m gonna climb up there and shake ‘em down. Stand clear.”

Up he went—higher and higher until he reached what he thought was the perfect point. Then, he leaned down and started to jiggle the branches, gently at first, then harder and harder, until at last the nuts broke free and hailed down onto the old quilt.

As the storm of pecans showered before us, Bob, Bill and I scampered around, flipping the strays onto the spread. All the while, I imagined all the cookies and candies that would soon find their way around them, not to mention the pecan pie that would provide a spectacular finale for our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

We brought the clumpy blanket home, and dumped the huge pile of nuts under the carport, bagged our treasure in brown paper bags, and hauled them into the furnace room to dry out.

The next step was the cracking. Moma had invented a sure-fire procedure. She clamped the nutcracker onto the kitchen stool and placed a Sara Lee fruitcake tin underneath. How perfectly it caught the nuts as they fell open!
Crack, crunch, crack, drop. Crack, squash, crack, crack. Moma’s rhythm was steady. As the pecans piled up, the goodness of the meat peeked out. Moma smiled as she concentrated on her task.

Silence. Oh boy, I knew what that meant. RATTLETIME! Moma put the lid on the Sara Lee tin, slid it off the stool into my waiting hands, and I shook that thing like it was the best maraca this side of Rio.

See, Moma had a theory. She said, “Pecans like being out of their shells, so if you crack them open enough and shake them in a tin hard enough, most of the time the outer covering simply falls off.” Maybe that was her way of making the next task appear a bit easier. Her words certainly made it more exotic. And at age five, already possessing a bent for drama, exotic was very appealing.

As the official pecan sheller in our family, my job was to prepare the nuts for their ready-to-eat state. That meant picking out all the tiny particles of shell that didn’t come off during my Carmen Miranda routine. It was a painstaking process that wore on what little patience I had.

Sitting at the kitchen table, my small fingers dusted the surface. Then, I used a metal pick to get down into the grooves of each pecan. The repetition helped me perfect my movements, as hundreds of pecans passed through my fingers.

Of course, some nuggets found their way into my mouth. Moma’s sixth sense kicked in as she appeared at the kitchen door, “Now Kay, we won’t have any for goodies if you keep that up.” I looked up at her, sighed a little, and then looked down at the seemingly endless pile of nuts—more determined than ever to get through it.
My task accomplished, I skipped across the kitchen to Moma’s side and lifted up our treasure, meeting her smile with mine. We both knew what came next—BUTTER BALLS!

We filled the big metal mixing bowl with softened butter, sugar and flour. In went my freshly washed little hands to squish the ingredients together. Moma stood beside me, dropping handfuls of chopped pecans into the dough.
Then, we lined the cookie sheets on the countertop, rolled the dough into little balls, put them on the sheets and popped them in the oven. The sweet, buttery scent drifted all through the house. When the cookies came out, we rolled them in powdered sugar, and I delivered them to Daddy and the boys who were in the living room pretending to be watching TV. I knew they were really waiting for the cookies. With the first bite we knew that the Christmas season was here.
I’ve been away from my parents’ home for more than forty years, but for more than thirty years Moma sent me a big bag of (already shelled) Missouri pecans for my Christmas treats.

This Christmas, baking Butter Balls will be one of my favorite ways to celebrate the season of love and good cheer. Yes, it tugs at my heart that the pecans will come from Sam’s Club instead of those great dancing trees out on the horizon.

But still, I’ll love making those powdered-sugared, pecan-laden delicacies to share with my family and friends. And as I eat more than my share, I will savor the memories of those Christmases long ago. You see, Butter Balls are more than mere family tradition; the truth is—it wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

Butter Balls…A Harper Family Christmas Tradition

1 c. butter
5 T. sugar
3 – 3
1/2 c. flour
2 t. vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans

Mix by hand in the order shown
Roll into small balls
Line up on ungreased cookie sheets

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes
Cool for a few minutes

Shake in a plastic bag with powdered sugar
Prepare to eat and smile!

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