If one could travel back in time to 1966 in Hattiesburg, Miss., there are three likely locations one would find five-year old Robert St. John— pacing and dreaming in front of the very small and limited toy aisle of the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store, running incessantly at the playground of the Kamper Park, or peering into the glass cases at the Blue Ribbon Bakery lusting after rainbow cookies.
If we polled a room full of five-year olds in 2015 and asked, “What is your favorite cookie?” the results would probably be the same as the results would have been in 1966. The conventional and classic chocolate chip cookie would win the day, overwhelmingly. An oatmeal raisin cookie might place a distant second followed by peanut butter cookies, chocolate cookies, and sugar cookies. The rainbow cookie wouldn’t make the top 100 of a list created by anyone who didn’t grow up in and around Hattiesburg.
However, odds are high that many children born after 1950 in the area we call “The Pine Belt” of South Mississippi, would list the revered rainbow cookie— that was sold at the Blue Ribbon Bakery on Hardy Street and later at Jody’s Bakery across the highway from Forrest General Hospital—in their top five.
The rainbow cookie at Jody’s Bakery would dominate my top 10 favorite-cookie list, probably taking up the top nine slots, followed by oatmeal raisin at number 10.
A rainbow cookie is kind of a tea cookie and kind of a shortbread cookie. It’s not too sweet, and it really doesn’t have a lot of depth in the flavor profile. It is artificially colored with food coloring— yellow, blue, pink, and purple— and it is awesome. The colors are probably what drew me to them over 50 years ago. But the taste and texture have kept me a fan all of these years. Jody’s also makes them in seasonal colors during holidays throughout the year— Christmas, Valentine’s, Mardi Gras, Easter, the Fourth of July, Fall, and Halloween.
JoAnna Lopez, owner and head baker at Jody’s Bakery, has worked in, or owned, a bakery for 43 years. She is a master in my book. Ferrell opened Jody’s 33 years ago. It has been my go-to for rainbow cookies, birthday cakes, and chicken pot pie (seriously, they have a freezer with home-baked casseroles and dishes that are excellent) for decades.
One year after Lopez opened shop, Louis Schweitzer, former owner of the Blue Ribbon Bakery – and creator of the rainbow cookie— decided to come out of retirement and work for Ferrell. He brought with him a few items— his recipe for sausage and cheese bread, and the estimable rainbow cookie. “I loved hanging out with an ‘old baker’ and he passed on a lot of his knowledge and expertise,” said Lopez. When asked if the rainbow cookie is a shortbread cookie, she replies, “It’s kind of like a shortbread cookie, but it’s really an icebox cookie. It has to be chilled before its cut.”
I love bakers and I love bakeries. They are an important part of a community. We don’t celebrate bakers like Europeans do and I think that we probably “miss the boat” in that area. Across the Atlantic people form a close, personal relationship with their baker, mainly because many of them see their baker every day. Over here we are concerned with gluten and carbs and loading up as many groceries as we can during a once-a-week trip to the grocery store. Though those who do frequent bakeries are keeping it quiet because we don’t want the baked goods to get picked over by interlopers.
My Italian friend, Annagloria, who lives in the quaint little town of Tavernelle in Tuscany, has close relationships with her butcher, green grocer, and baker. She picks up bread each day from the baker, but the bakery is also where everyone in town purchases their par-cooked Tuscan white beans. That dish is as much an iconic comfort food staple in the Tuscan larder, as the aforementioned chicken pot pie that I purchase at Jody’s.
“This town has a love affair with rainbow cookies,” Lopez said. “It’s an emotional connection that has carried on for generations.” Kids who came into her bakery for rainbow cookies in the early 1980s are now bringing their kids in for rainbow cookies. My son loves them.
So, in this season of giving and gratitude, join me and pause for a moment offering a word of thanks for community bakers such as JoAnna Lopez and the joy and happiness each of them bring to their respective communities. Support local bakers. Eat gluten. Embrace carbs, if only for the holiday season. Just make sure and leave some rainbow cookies for me.
Biscotti di Prato
5 ½ cups Cake flour
1 ½ cup Sugar
4 each Whole eggs
1 each ¼ oz. package active dry yeast
1 ½ cups Blanched almond slivers, toasted and finely chopped (about 1 cup after chopped)
Preheat oven to 325.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the flour sugar and eggs on medium speed for 4 minutes. Add the yeast and continue mixing for 2 minutes. Add the chopped almonds and mix another 2 minutes.
Divide the dough in half and form each into a loaf about 1” thick and 3” wide on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cook for 10-15 minutes, let cool slightly and slice ½“ thick. Return to the baking pan and cook an additional 6-8 minutes until browned. Allow to cool completely.