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Lemon Crackers, a Christmas Tradition ‘Round These Parts

December 16, 2011

“Is it a cracker, or a cookie?” I asked him, as I pulled him into the corner of his parents’ dining room, out of ear-shot of any nosy family member who might draw conclusions about Jason’s choice in women by their apparent lack of local food knowledge. His blue eyes sparkled. “Well…” he seemed to be thinking hard. I didn’t know a 20 year old could be so serious in considering his words about cookies (or crackers). We had been dating for a few years, and every year on Christmas his mom would put out this tray of fashionably odd-shaped cookies called Lemon Crackers. She had them growing up, and presumably so did her mother, whom Becky learned to make them from. “Well, I suppose they’re a cookie that tastes like a cracker.” A good enough answer, but not giving me the meat I was looking for. “So they’re a cracker then!” “No, Har, they’re a cookie. Just accept it. You’re going to have to if you’re a part of this family.”

Becky's Lemon Cracker Recipe from her mother, Virginia Funkhouser and her Aunt Armenta Emswiller; written down in 1996 watching them bake with no recipe

Apparently, Lemon Crackers (in their importance they shall here forth be capitalized) hold a kind of sacred place on the Christmas buffet. Made once a year, these cookierackers seem to do more than pleasure the senses of both taste and touch, as they crumble and crunch in your mouth, followed by a sweet flaky finish and the essence of lemon. They deeply gratify the sense of belonging that one feels to a culture and a family. As many of the families in this rural, agrarian town are of German descent, they bring their German traditions with them. Including the Lemon Craker.

Rolling out and cutting odd-shaped "crackers"

“So what are they made of?” I whisper in his ear later as we are sitting snug on couches all around in the family room. This is long before there were any babies crawling around on the floor to stare at an oogle over, so there was more quiet time. I used the opportunity to solicit more information about my then-boyfriend’s family foods. “Well, flour, lard, lemon I guess, and ammonia.” “WHAT? AMMONIA?” At this point, I might as well have invited an entire Bowman discussion on the topic, as my surprise was palpable, and, well, loud. And wouldn’t you be if someone just told you you ate ammonia?

Setting up to roll out batches and batches of Lemon Crackers

Well, a few years have passed since those early dating days. Since then, a marriage has ensued, along with a deep passion for food research and inquiry. This year, I began my research by joining Becky in her annual Lemon Cracker baking day, a day I treasure, since it was with her mother that she baked them each year, who in her last years would pull a chair up by the oven to oversee every precious baking moment of all 12-15 batches. I was honored to learn the tradition (but was not quite so good at watching over the oven, occasionally browning the edges a moment too long as our conversation, and sense of time, lingered).

Becky remembers Lemon Cracker day well growing up. Her Aunt Armenta would come over, and her mother, Virginia, would shoo little Becky (then called ‘Joe’ affectionately by her father) out of the kitchen. She describes being “relegated to the doorway only to peer in.” Flour splashed around the kitchen (along with some good ol’ sisterly gossip), lard was dipped out of homemade buckets, and “sweet milk” (or what we today call half-and-half) was brought in from the cooler in the barn. And most memorably, white, chalky chunks of baker’s ammonia would be crushed with a hammer between sheets of wax paper, jolting the senses with each … WHACK!

During our Lemon Cracker endeavors that swallowed up the whole morning and kept us warm in the kitchen while the crisp December air whirled around the house, Becky reflected on her childhood and making Lemon Crackers. She described Armenta a bit to me:

My aunt Armena was 80something years old when she died. She was one hell of a woman. Outlived two husbands. She painted her barn. She would dig thistle like papaw out in the hot sun. She belonged to the Mt. Jackson garden club. And she had this beautiful garden—roses and flowers that you walked through like a maze. She was a tough, sneaky woman.

Aunt Armena and mom were the closest sisters. And they’d throw me in the back of the Falcon and drive up to Harrisonburg at 4am to get there when the doors open at Joseph Ney’s, the department store, for the big sale once a year. I remember I would always get a little dress or a pair of gloves, and mom and Aunt Armenta would run and grab underwear and other things on sale.

Resting for a moment while the last batch bakes

It seems that Lemon Crackers have been around for a long time, at least as far as American history is concerned. It is surmised that they were baked by early settlers because of their traveling and keeping quality, and because ammonia was something that you could make/collect from decaying materials and use as a leavener when yeast was unavailable.  If you search for them on the internet, almost EVERY recipe comes up exactly the same (the few that there are), and they are hardly mentioned elsewhere, save in passing in A. Hawelander’s 1937 US Patent on making doughnuts (can you patent such a thing? Apparently…). Today, baker’s ammonia, or Ammonium Carbonate, can be purchased online from King Arthur and other such specialty vendors, or if you live in a small-town like myself, at your local pharmacy or Mennonite grocery (read: not Riteaid or CVS. They might think you’re starting a meth lab or something if you ask for Ammonium Carbonate for “baking”).

Becky drove down to the old-time Timberville Pharmacy and ordered some ammonia from the pharmacist who apparently already has it packaged in 1 oz jars for all the cracker-baking ladies. At the same counter you can buy lemon oil as well. My first question, both to my mother-in-law and the world-wide-web was, is it safe? Well, I’ve discovered that it actually is, and is merely the predecessor to other more common (and less olfactory) bread leaveners, including baking powder, soda, and yeast. Although the ammonia smell is overpowering when first warmed in the sweet milk and mixed into the batter, at baking’s end, it’s only residue is the flaky, cracker-esque-ness offered to the cookie. Give it a try–and pose the question to your own unsuspecting visitors, in-laws, or friends…is it a cracker or a cookie? The jury is still out.

Jason snagging a Lemon Cracker at lunch today

Lemon Cracker Satisfaction

Here’s to the beautiful food culture that surrounds us all, and that saturates our homes (and bodies) this time of year. Happy Cookierackering to You and Yours this Holiday Season. xoxo

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2011 10:43 pm

    I need lemon cookie-crackers!

  2. Paula permalink
    December 23, 2013 12:48 am

    My sister and I grew up eating lemon cracker cookies. Our grandmother would make them. She has long sense passed and I found the recipe but it was incomplete. It only had the money amount for the bakers ammonia and oil of lemon so we didn’t know how much to use. Thanks for sharing. What a wonderful story.

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