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Tue May 20, 2008


Cornmeal Sugar Cookies

My grandpa loved Chinese food. And strawberry shortcake. And hamburgers cooked on the grill, the life squeezed out of them with the back of a spatula. He loved scraping the dough out of the inside of a bagel or bialy and filling it with cream cheese, and he loved bacon and eggs when he went out to breakfast, since my grandma would never cook bacon at home. And he loved his family, so, of course, he loved sharing all of these delights with them.

About a month ago, my grandpa, at the age of 89, went into the hospital with pneumonia.
I quickly filled with anxiety, the kind that feels like you’re being held under water. I imagined holding his hand every night when I went to sleep, sending him all my strength and healing and I became quiet, like him, concentrating all my energy on his getting well. I stopped writing then because I wasn’t eating, at least not thoughtfully, and I definitely wasn’t cooking.

I spent a week with him in Florida, gathering his presence, holding his hand, listening to the stories about his mother, my great-grandma Dora, about World War II, about my parents and my cousins, and then went home, thinking he was getting better. I continued to grasp his hand in my dreams, but he started slipping away. His mind was still strong, but his body just couldn’t keep up. He passed away last Monday while a music therapist from hospice was playing his favorite song, “Memories.” The sadness poured from me like a tidal wave.

In Jewish tradition, the primary mourners “sit shiva,” which literally means “seven;” it is an intense, weeklong period of mourning where friends and other family come and bring comfort and, incidentally, food. But the tradition could easily be called “eating shiva,” because aside from telling stories about my grandpa, that’s all we did. There was every kind of smoked fish you could imagine, from salmon to whitefish, there was herring in cream and lots and lots of bagels. There was pastrami and corned beef and rye bread that was perfectly crisp at the edges and soft and doughy in the middle. And there were cookies.

My grandma has always been the family baker, but when my cousin Dawn suggested we do some baking for shiva instead, I knew she had the right idea. So we made cookies. Dawn made my grandma’s rugelach and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and I made anise-almond biscotti and cornmeal sugar cookies. They were bite-size bits of comfort, to dunk in coffee or to nibble while looking through my grandpa’s notebooks from World War II. The cookies were a conversation piece, something that united our family in our time of grief. And they were as healing to make as they were to eat. All of my love for my grandpa (and grandma, for that matter) went into the cookie dough, worked into it by the same hands that held my grandpa’s so tightly. The baking was quiet and contemplative, like my grandpa, and gave me time to come to terms with our loss.

And while the biscotti were a tasty, fair substitute for my grandma’s mandel brot (which I now have the recipe for), it was the cornmeal sugar cookies that I savored the most. I used coarse kosher salt when I made these cookies, and so, in every bite, along with the zing of the lemon zest and the sweetness of the sugar, it was like you could taste traces of tears. They were a bittersweet testament to a good, long life, filled with joy and love, that I wish I could have shared just a little bit longer.

Cornmeal Sugar Cookies
from Gourmet

2/3 c all-purpose flour
¼ c yellow cornmeal
2 tbsp cornstarch
¼ tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 c confectioners sugar
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp grated lemon zest
granulated sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend butter, confectioners sugar, vanilla and lemon zest in the food processor until creamy, about 30 seconds. Scrape down sides and the remaining dry ingredients and pulse until the dough just comes together.

Sprinkle a work surface and a rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough until about 1/3-inch thick. It’s pretty sticky, so make sure the surface is well floured. Using a round cookie cutter or a shot glass or a drinking glass (depending on the size cookie you want) and transfer cookies to a baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with granulated sugar.

Bake until the undersides are pale and golden, about 12-14 minutes. Set finished cookies on a rack to cool.

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11 Responses to “Cookies”

  1. White On Rice Couple Says:

    I’m glad to know that you were with your Grandpa and shared some precious time with him. I never had the opportunity to know my Grandpa’s, they died in the war. I’ve always felt a little lost a child because all my friends had their Grandpa’s around, while I only knew mine through pictures. But from my Grandmother’s stories about them, I feel more connected to two of my heroes. They really are my heroes. I cherish all my elders, I can never thank them enough for their wisdom, guidance and love.
    My thoughts are with you. XOXO.

  2. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing and your support. I’m sorry you never got to know your Grandpas, but I’m sure they’d be honored to know they are your heroes. Your Grandmas, too.

  3. celine Says:

    I am so sorry to hear about your grandpa…

  4. Leah Greenstein Says:

    Thanks, Celine.

  5. Brooke Says:

    It isn’t easy taking armfuls of emotion and putting it all down so you can find a way to express it on the page. Your words are beautiful, eloquent, funny and heartbreaking.

    It’s been a difficult month for you, I know, but you have managed to be both strong and tender at every turn. What an incredible tribute to your grandfather. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.


  6. Kate Says:

    I’m sorry about your beloved grampa. Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute, and especially for your comment about the taste of tears. We scattered my dad’s ashes at sea in a violently rocking boat and as my hand kept dipping into the water to swirl them and touch him one last time, I brought it to my mouth, without thinking. I thought the same thing at the time — salty tears.

  7. Irene Goodman Says:


    Are you working on a book? Please get back to me if you’re interested. You have such a lovely and evocative way of writing.


  8. Renee Says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss; your grandpa sounds like a wonderful, very loved man. Your words were so poignant and evoked such emotions in me, and I thank you for sharing them – and the recipe. Tasting “traces of tears” will never be forgotten. Sharing all of this was a beautiful thing for you to do, and I hope that in some small way, it helps in your healing.



  9. Leah Greenstein Says:

    I want to thank you all for your heartfelt wishes.

  10. Barbara and Sandy Greenstein Says:

    Dear Leah,
    As always your words are beautiful, bringing fresh tears to our eyes as we share in your sadness. You captured the essence of who your Grandpa was and what he meant to you, and as always had an original take on the what shiva is meant to be. You are certainly an awesome mixture of your grandparents–caring, sensitive, talented, and eloquent. We love you.
    Mom and Dad


    I can’t find the right words to express what you have given us both.WE are so Proud of you.We are so Blessed having you as our loving beautiful Butterfly. You have given us years of HAPPINESS….All our LOVE ALWAYS!!!

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