Mamau’s Cheese Straws
As far back as I can remember, Christmas always started with my grandmother’s cheese straws. Her name was Heloise McKee, but we called her Mamau. For about 40 years, she hosted a fancy Christmas Eve dinner for our family at her home in Memphis. For her seven grandkids, this was a major event because it ended with the opening of presents in her living room, a pre-Santa bonanza that felt like a bonus. But for me, it always began with the cheese straws, which she set out in silver bowls as a cocktail snack. They appeared only on that annual occasion. My brother never cared for them, but I could eat a dozen in a sitting, seduced by the crunchy goodness of Cheddar and cayenne that tasted like Christmas to me.
I never gave those cheese straws much thought until earlier this year, when we lost Mamau at age 97. She had lived a remarkable life and been through difficult times—enduring the loss of a fiancé, who died in a small plane he was flying, and then marrying another pilot, my grandfather, who flew fighter planes in the South Pacific during World War II. But she was probably best known for her wry (and sometimes biting) sense of humor, which stayed with her until the very end. The day before she passed, she’d been having trouble breathing, so she asked for an ambulance to take her to the hospital. When a chipper doctor asked her how she was feeling after hours of poking, prodding, and blood work, she dryly said, “Never better.”
As we were clearing out her house and getting it ready for sale, I came across her old tin recipe box, which had been sitting in the same spot on the kitchen counter for several decades. She was not an enthusiastic cook, so it wasn’t jam-packed. There were many of her favorites on note cards—the beef tenderloin she always made for the holidays, hot water cornbread, a cranberry relish that she used to give as a gift, her mother’s pecan pie. But the one that caught my eye was her cheese straw recipe, just a few lines in her elegant handwriting and an attribution to an old friend, Mary Calvin Collins. For years, that was one of the only things she baked, and she never broke from the tradition of putting them out on Christmas Eve.
I can’t promise you they’re the best cheese straws ever, but I do miss walking into her house with a laundry basket full of gifts; seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins; and finding those snacks in the same little bowls every year. They signaled that Christmas had finally arrived and the festivities had begun. In honor of Heloise, I want to kick off this issue in the same spirit. Happy holidays.