Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Return of Barnaby Day

Transitions are hard.

When you are five, and start a brand new school with all new kids and a new teacher and a new lunchbox at a new place with a new play structure and much higher basketball hoops, it's all very exciting, of course.  But it's also very stressful.

When you are five, you cannot make yourself a stiff gin and tonic when you get home, or strap on your boxing gloves and punch the living daylights out of something during kickboxing class*.

But you might just be lucky enough to have Barnaby Day.

Every Friday afternoon, for a few hours after school during that first year of kindergarten, my son and a bunch of friends from preschool would come over for a playdate at our house. They'd run around, getting wet in hoses, acting like pirates, playing hide and seek, shooting marbles, building train tracks, climbing in the tree house, and generally going bananas with the relief of making it through another week. The parents all chipped in a few bucks to have the kids' favorite Pre-K teacher show up to play with them.  Barnaby, a 20-something transplant from Britain, had a wacko sense of humor, hair that was constantly falling over his eyes, a ukelele, and a million ideas for crazy games. Having this icon of coolness and fun all to themselves was akin to us getting Bono to stop by the family BBQ. They couldn't believe their luck.

Little did they know just how lucky they were. The other person who was there, every week, like clockwork, was Mom.  She's the one who named the reunion free-for-all, "Barnaby Day".  She collected and paired up the muddy shoes, and stacked backpacks and lunch boxes neatly by the front door.  She knew everyone's names, gave each child a high-five when they arrived, asked about their new schools and got them some juice.  "Sharon," she'd say, smiling at me as she gazed at the mob taking over the living room, "you are doing such a nice thing for them.   Just look how happy they are!"

Then she'd start the oven, and make cookies.   Every week, the same cookies.   Because when you are five, there is enormous comfort in routine**.  In knowing that, even when so much around you is new and changing and different, Friday afternoon is coming.  You can count on it.

Transitions are hard.

When you are forty-six, and have your first Mother's Day without a mom, when Maria and Arnold are breaking up without a divorcee in Burbank scanning the tabloids, fretting, and hoping they can work it out, and when you board a plane and realize no one is sitting in an apartment praying fervently that a deranged person won't start pounding on the cockpit door during your flight, it's not exciting at all.  It's very stressful.

I'll have a stiff gin and tonic tonight.  I'll punch something during kickboxing class.  And I'll make a big batch of Barnaby Day Cookies***.  You can count on it.

Barnaby Day Cookies
These are ridiculously simple, but crazily addictive.  You know that commercial where they say, "You can't eat just one."?    It's about these cookies.   They're thin and flat, deliciously crispy and buttery around the edges, with melt-in-your mouth soft, chewy, caramel-flavored middles.   The secret?  The ratio of butter to sugar to flour in her recipe is skewed HEAVILY in favor of the butter and sugar. As it should be whenever comfort food is involved.

1 c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 350, and line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat.  Combine butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla at low speed with an electric mixer.   Add the dry ingredients, and continue mixing on low speed until combined.   Dough will be very soft.  Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto prepared baking sheets.   Bake for 12 minutes.

Allow to cool for a minute, then transfer to cooling rack.   Eat as soon as your fingers can stand the heat, while they are still almost bendy in your hand.  Or, cool a bit more, put on a round plate with a train in the middle and serve to the pack of kindergarteners in the back yard.

Click to print this recipe!

* You can punch the living daylights out of your little sister.   Without gloves.  Then she gets stressed out, but you feel a lot better.
** Not to mention that the kids LOVED these cookies.  Parents, too.  One dad walked in the door every week, headed straight for the cookie plate, and ate about five before he even started looking for his kid.  I think he would have proposed marriage if he could.
*** Mom made these so often, and with so many variations (when we were dieting, she added raisins, because they are fruit, and when we were celebrating, sprinkles, because they are fun), that I assumed I could just whip them up from memory whenever I wanted.

I was wrong.  I tried them with one egg. I tried them with two.  With extra brown sugar.  With a little less flour.  The now-nearly grown son faithfully tried every batch and looked wistful and sad with each bite.   He'd shake his head:  They're good, Mom.  But they're not Grandma's cookies.

I became strangely desperate, almost frantic.  I felt compelled to have these for real, not just as a memory like everything else.   At last, I tracked down the recipe in a friend's seven year old copy of a spiral-bound school cookbook.   When they came out of the oven, even before the first bite,  we all started dancing around the kitchen and screaming, "These are them!  These are them!"

Like a bunch of crazy five year olds.

We had Barnaby Day back.  We hadn't lost everything after all.


  1. Sharon, you moved me to tears. I'm so sorry to just learn that your Mom died, I remember her smile (and Christmas cookies) so vividly, just as I remember Barnaby and the smiles (and crushes) he evoked. I'll have a Friday stiff one in your honor, and in honor of those preschool days so long ago.

  2. Thanks, Mindy. Hard to believe it was so many years ago that the girls were running around your back yard, with Charlie following them around in his dodger shirt. One of mom's favorite things was your NY new year's eve party. She loved that whole idea...and got such a kick out of the evening. Miss you guys!