By Selma Jackson
Growing up in the Bronx, my parents, James and Anna McNeely made every effort to make holidays special for their five daughters. I was the middle daughter of five.
Every January, we would pile into daddy’s black Chrysler New Yorker to go to Delancey and Orchard Streets to select our Easter outfits that mom made. We would select our patterns and colors. My sisters would pick Simplicity or McCall patterns, but I always selected Butterick or Vogue patterns. I wanted something different. I also chose colors that were different, mostly bright colors. Mom selected the fabric. My mom said I challenged her, so she took night classes at a local high school to learn tailoring. Soon she was making coats and suits for us! Many times, we purchased hat forms and decorated the forms to match our outfits! We were couture very early!
We always ended this shopping trip with a visit to Katz’s Deli for pastrami sandwiches.
Although Thanksgiving and Christmas are late in the year, mom began preparing for the holidays in August by soaking the nuts and dried fruit for our annual fruit cake! Again, I was amazed by my mom’s care for our family. My dad was diagnosed with diabetes in 1950, and my mom found a class that taught her how to prepare desserts for people with diabetes. Mom was an excellent cook, but what brought me the most joy was watching mom bake: yeast rolls, cakes, and pies. I would help with cracking nuts. The most difficult were black walnuts, which could only be cracked on the window sill with a hammer, and then you had to use a nut picker to dig out the nut! The taste was sooo delicious! My other job was to grate the fresh coconut and peel the apples for a cake or pie.
The dessert table included pound cake (one just for my dad, his favorite), black walnut cake, coconut layer cake, apple pie or apple cake, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, and sweet potato pie.
As I got older, mom would send me dessert recipes, and I treated her to cookbooks, a gift she treasured. I remember she cried with joy when I sent her Edna Lewis’ Cookbook. I considered my mom the ultimate baker, so you can imagine the joy I felt when she called me in 1990 and asked for two of my recipes: cream cheese brownies and carrot cake. I have been making both since 1972. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
Memories of mom’s superb baking inspired me to take up the holiday baking tradition to share with family and friends. Whenever I am baking for the holidays, I feel my mom’s presence guiding my hands. When folks thank me, I share how this was my mother’s gift to me. That gift came in handy during the pandemic and gave me a sense of calm. I baked assorted desserts for my family and friends and shipped them as far away as California. It was a blessing to share my mom’s love and mine through baking for my circle.