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A Bourbon Ball That Shows Up Everything at the Neighbor's Cookie Swap

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The lady down the street was from Kentucky. I don’t know how she came to live in South San Francisco, where there was never a night that fog didn’t send the cold through your jacket. The lady’s husband lost his mind one time and chased her up the slope of our block with a hatchet. In nothing but a towel, she pounded on our door (I’ve always pictured her in a shower cap, but this all happened when I was a baby) and that’s how Jane and my mother became friends. My mom protected her, her husband left her, we adopted her—she was forever after Aunt Jane. In turn, she made our lives fabulous.

She was tall and large and wore clip-on earrings. She had cheekbones that popped and big lips that were never any color but red. Aunt Jane liked both my older brother and me, but I was her special boy. She called me Johnny.

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Some of Aunt Jane's sugar—her Kentucky bourbon balls.
Some of Aunt Jane's sugar—her Kentucky bourbon balls. Photo by James Ransom

Whenever Aunt Jane saw me she’d demand, “Where’s my sugar?” in a way that oozed, the way butter melts on a hot biscuit. My mom said that’s how they talked in the South. Sugar meant offering my cheek for a kiss. Aunt Jane smelled like perfume, always, like flowers trapped under a glass so the smell built up, getting free when you got near enough to give up your sugar, as if you were let in under that same glass to mingle with flowers. After she released me, I’d be marked with that lipstick, and then Aunt Jane’s thumb—or a licked Kleenex from my mother’s cosmetic-smelling purse—would have to wipe away the red.

Aunt Jane worked the night shift as a nurse, and sometimes after payday she’d buy us a bunch of things; she would show up at our house with presents, any time—not just birthdays and Christmas. My brother had friends and sports. I was shy, often alone in my room, reading or dreaming over books. Sometimes Aunt Jane would be over, when I came home from school, eating Triscuits and cheese and drinking wine with my mom. There’d be a football or something equally stupid for my brother. For me, a book: an Oz volume I was missing or a Doctor Dolittle, and never a cheap paperback. With Jane it was always hardcover, always the best. She was the center of a world unbothered by money or the fear of what other people thought, all the things pressing down on my parents. We held each other’s hand and ran down the street in front of my house with our eyes closed. Aunt Jane said it was really something to be able to run like that without being afraid of falling.

One day I walked home from school and found Jane’s boxy little white Dodge Dart parked in front of our house. Aunt Jane was inside, listening to the radio. She looked like she’d been crying. I gave her sugar; we went inside. Out of her bag she gave me the Illustrated Junior Library edition of The Jungle Book. On the cover, the naked boy Mowgli hung from a vine under a huge, low, and mysterious white moon, tickling the mouth of the panther Bagheera with a stick. With burning eyes, the panther looked up at the boy. Inside was written, Just because! Happy Wednesday!!! XOXOXO Aunt Jane. It was wonderful, and it was slightly weird, like…too much. I pictured sadness hanging over Aunt Jane like a skyless green jungle, the moon too distant to help.

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She asked my mother if I could spend occasional weekends at her apartment. My mother said yes. Jane’s place was sunless and still, with a narrow patio off some sliding doors that looked at a fence. We went to a nice restaurant and Aunt Jane showed me the proper way to order for a woman. When the waiter came up I said, “The lady would like the veal scaloppini.” He smiled. Aunt Jane beamed. I didn’t know if she was getting me ready for girls or making me the man she wanted.

Jane had a male friend not even my mother had met. His name was Brian and he was married. I tried to picture how this could be possible. Invisible Brian had his own easy chair in Jane’s apartment (none of us sat there when we went over), and a rack of pipes on a cinderblock bookcase with an old clock that chimed. Aunt Jane made me waffles in her kitchen that smelled like the drain, and instead of syrup gave me sorghum to put on top. Aunt Jane said this is how you ate waffles in Kentucky, as the tarlike mixture flowed slowly off my spoon. I wondered how one place could be so different from another.

Jane's original recipe—from John's mother's recipe book.
Jane's original recipe—from John's mother's recipe book. Photo by John Birdsall

Once Christmas Aunt Jane gave us another piece of Kentucky, in the recipe she gave my mom for what turned out to be my favorite. Her Kentucky bourbon balls were not like anything else at our neighbor Dot’s huge annual cookie swap; they weren’t the same old jam drops or gingerbread men or the pale powdered sugar–dusted Russian ones my brother liked. You didn’t bake them. They were cool and clammy things like lumps of Play-Doh, cloudy from the sugar you rolled them in.

My mom always made them with orange juice, not the Kentucky bourbon listed in the looping blue-ballpoint recipe. Every year I asked her to put bourbon in them. Every year she told me I was too young for that. But I got older. At 13, after I’d already started less and less to offer up sugar, I told my mother and Aunt Jane I didn’t want to be Johnny anymore. That from now on and forever I was to be called John.

Once at her apartment, Aunt Jane gave me a real bourbon ball, one she’d made using one hundred percent bourbon from her cupboard. It had the balsa-wood smell of the liquor I knew from sniffing my parents’ highballs, and the same clammy bite. But the bourbon stuck in my nose. Ever so gently did it burn the edges of my tightened throat. “Merry Christmas, John.”

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Aunt Jane's Kentucky Bourbon Balls

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Makes just under 4 dozen
  • 8 ounces Nilla Wafers cookies
  • 4 ounces shelled pecans
  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate (64% cacao)
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for coating
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 6 tablespoons bourbon

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Tags: bourbon balls, kentucky, baking