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The Pecan Puff Mystery


Pecan puffs were my father’s favorite Christmas cookie. We kids all liked them, but Daddy loved them. So much so that our grandmother couldn’t keep him supplied during Christmas season.

In the middle of December, the stack of Granny’s cookbooks appeared on the kitchen counter, scraps of paper with additional recipes scrawled in her round script stuck between their pages. Then she’d decide on the year’s varieties, up to a dozen, and compile her list of necessary ingredients.

“You’re going to make mincemeat cookies this year, aren’t you?” I always asked as I was the only one in the family who liked them. My brother would put in his order for apricot dots, my sister for hermits.

“Don’t forget the pecan puffs,” Daddy’d say.

We’d all laugh. As if Granny would ever, ever forget the pecan puffs.

“Hey, how about a triple batch for a change,” Daddy suggested one year. “Your double batches are long gone by Christmas.”

Granny looked up
from her list.
“Whose fault
is that?”

“You shouldn’t make them so irresistible,” Daddy said.

“Maybe you should show some self control.”

“Yeah, you always tell us to share,” I pointed out.

His face scrunched in an expression of bewildered regret.

“Never mind, Bill,” Granny said. “I think we can help you.”

“How?” clamored we kids.

She placed a finger to her lips. Her periwinkle eyes were as blue as Santa’s and her hair just as white. My father, brother, and I all exchanged a look. Even in a season of secrets, we couldn’t imagine Granny plotting to restrain my father’s appetite for pecan puffs.

I loved returning home from school as the holidays approached. New out-of-town packages would be stacked in the pantry, and as carols blared from our Webcor stereo, Granny would emerge from the kitchen dusted with flour, wearing her white apron with an embroidered poinsettia. “Can you stand how good these cookies smell, Donnan?” she’d ask.

My role in cookie baking was to prepare the tins for storage. I’d fish them out from the kitchen broom closet and wash them in soapy water in preparation for their precious contents. On a snowy afternoon thick with the aroma of pecan puffs, I set out the one large and one medium tin reserved for them.

“I’d like to let you in on something,” Granny said. “But you can’t tell anyone.”

“You want me to wash a bunch more tins because you’re making Daddy a big, enormous batch,” I guessed.

She shook her head. “Not exactly. Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes, yes. What is it?”

“We bake the second tin of pecan puffs this year and stash it where we always do in the cabinet behind the mixer. Your father will find and demolish them as usual. But we’ll hide a third tin in the bottom drawer of the pantry. That will be safe until Christmas Day.”

“We won’t run out this year,” I said. “Daddy will never guess.”

“Not unless you tell him, dearie.”

By dinnertime, all three tins were ensconced in their designated spots.

On Christmas Day the usual parade of friends and neighbors began to appear. Granny asked me to help arrange plates of sweets for our guests. “And you know where you’ll find the pecan puffs,” she said winking at me.

“Sorry. We’ve been out of them for two days,” my father said matter-of-factly as he gathered up the makings for a wassail punch and went to the dining room.

“We know better,” Granny whisperedto me.

Enjoying being the insider to Granny’s cookie caper, I went to the pantry and opened the bottom drawer. The tin wasn’t there. I opened the drawer above. No tin!

I ran back into the kitchen. “The secret tin is missing.”

“That’s impossible.” She brushed past me. “Let me check.” She switched on the light in the pantry and began opening and closing drawers in a growing frenzy.

Back in the kitchen, she asked, “Do you have any idea what might have happened to those cookies, Donnan?”

My cheeks went hot. “I didn’t take them!”

“You’re the only other person who knew where they were.”

“I sneaked a lot of candy from the turtle box, but I didn’t eat the pecan puffs!” I said, half indignant but half relieved to have confessed my alternative crime.

The mystery clouded Christmas dinner for Granny and me. Afterward, when it was time to go to the Kleebs’ annual party, it was with an air of defeat that Granny filled a tin with cookies to share. “Our neighborhood will miss the pecan puffs yet another year,” she said.

I shrugged glumly, worried that she wasn’t convinced of my innocence.

As I climbed into the back seat of the car, I stepped on something hard. Groping in the dark to shove whatever it was out of the way, my hand clunked against the missing tin! I pulled it up and shook it. Empty.

I thrust it into the front seat before my father’s face. “How did this get ­here?”

Everyone began talking at once. “I guess I can’t be trusted when it comes to pecan puffs,” Daddy announced over the hubbub.

“But you knew Granny wanted to share them,” I said.

“I admit it.”

“I’m telling our neighbors that you stole, and then tried to hide the evidence,” I declared.

Everyone laughed at my threat, so I tried to laugh despite my chagrin—that such a wonderful plan could fail before my father’s insatiable passion for pecan puffs. Then the idea of tattling publicly on him came back strong, along with a private smile.

Donnan (Deedie) Runkel is the Innkeeper of Anne Hathway’s B&B in Ashland, OR, a Rotarian,  and author of the memoir Boxes:  Lifting the Lid on an American Life. She’s currently working in a collection of short stories from life at the inn.