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

December  1, 2016

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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Top Comment:
“San Francisco High school, and lived with my Uncle Cook and Aunt Jane in So. City. She too was larger than life. She had a beautiful voice (met my Uncle during a wrong number phone call, he wouldn't let her hang up). She was the receptionist at City Hall on Grand Avenue, they called her the Voice of City Hall! She also taught me how to make Bourbon Balls. Uncle Cook (my dad's brother) was from Kentucky and it was a point of pride to her that she mastered those. But her stuffed zucchini, well, that was something to write home about! Thanks for the reminder. My Aunt Jane passed away 17 years ago this January, and I think about her often. ”
— Susan H.
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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. 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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49 Comments

Susan H. December 30, 2016
What a heartwarming story. Almost shocking too, but we don't have the same Aunt Jane! I went to So. San Francisco High school, and lived with my Uncle Cook and Aunt Jane in So. City. She too was larger than life. She had a beautiful voice (met my Uncle during a wrong number phone call, he wouldn't let her hang up). She was the receptionist at City Hall on Grand Avenue, they called her the Voice of City Hall! She also taught me how to make Bourbon Balls. Uncle Cook (my dad's brother) was from Kentucky and it was a point of pride to her that she mastered those. But her stuffed zucchini, well, that was something to write home about! Thanks for the reminder. My Aunt Jane passed away 17 years ago this January, and I think about her often.
 
tamater S. December 31, 2016
So where's that stuffed Zuccini recipe already? ;-)
 
Susan H. January 2, 2017
Here is her recipe exactly as it's printed in her personal cookbook, typos, misspellings and all. Food52'ers will know to adapt cooking times, etc.<br />Jane's Stuffed Zuccinni<br />8 medium Zucchini - Boil until fork goes through easily.<br />1 cup parmesan cheese<br />1/2 lb Italian sausage, browned and crumbled<br />3 eggs<br />Bread crumbs (contadina Italian)<br />Garlic Powder, salt and pepper<br /> When zucchini are finished boiling, cut off ends and slice lengthwise. With a teaspoon, gently scoop out centers into a flat bowl and place shells on a breadboard.<br />When finished drain off excess liquid from squash in flat bowl as possible then mash squash with fork.<br />Add eggs, beat well into squash. <br />Add cheese, sprinkle heavily over mixture, add garlic sprinkle sparingly.<br />Drain grease from sausage and add to mixture. Mix well.<br />Then add bread crumbs until a soft mixture forms.<br />Fill each shell generously and place on large shall baking pan which has been oiled. Pr-heat oven 325 deg. Bake until lightly browned (about 1/2 hour).<br />These are my own recipe. Auntie May taught me how to fix these. They are delicious hot or cold. May be frozen 2 weeks. JH
 
tamater S. January 2, 2017
Thank you so much, typos included!
 
Mm December 23, 2016
Thank you John for a touching story. We're all in this together, please lets be respectful of each other!
 
Ruth December 23, 2016
I love the recipe but I want more of Aunt Jane's story. She sounds like a beautiful lady!
 
tamater S. December 23, 2016
I don't know which was better, the story, or the recipe! Except for the odd visit, I've been out of country for years now. I'm going to call these Jane & John's KY Bourbon Balls. I should print out the story by the recipe, so both the cookies and their story will live on in my book!
 
Nelda M. December 23, 2016
I cannot tell you how happy this recipe make me. I live in Bardstown (KY) where most of the country's bourbon is made and we know that a real bourbon ball is made like this. Now, those round candies that are dipped in chocolate and have a pecan half stuck on top are good too, but they are sadly called bourbon balls when they are really bourbon creams.
 
Jenny A. December 23, 2016
What a wonderful, heartwarming story. I'm thinking I need to make these cookies in honor of this special relationship. Thanks for sharing the personal side of this recipe.
 
MelindaB December 8, 2016
I want to make these, it I'm wondering why some of the ingredient measurements are different. Recipe refinement?
 
Steven W. December 7, 2016
gee, I didn't see this recipe call for onions, yet my eyes are tearing up....
 
Reading G. December 7, 2016
Being a Kentucky native, it was a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing
 
Caro M. December 7, 2016
Aww, such a lovely story, thank you - and so many great comments.. I do love Food 52!
 
Ani December 5, 2016
I've never commented on a recipe on Food53, but wow, John...that was such a beautiful story and I cannot wait to make these. Perhaps when I eat them, I'll feel a little larger than life like Aunt Jane.
 
Kit D. December 5, 2016
This story needs to be made into a movie! Your Aunt Jane reminds me of Auntie Mame. Fabulous! Thank you for sharing a great story and recipe.
 
Michele F. December 4, 2016
Thanks for sharing the story & the recipe, John. I'm going to make these this week for our girl's get-together. We always made a similar 'booze-infused' cookie; using Crown Royal Canadian whiskey and rolling them in powdered confectioner's sugar. Loved them!
 
pattie December 4, 2016
What happened to Aunt Jane?????
 
Kristen M. December 4, 2016
Pattie, check out John's response to my comment below!
 
richard P. December 4, 2016
Wonderful memories! Great recipe. Very similiar to my mom's which I make every year! Enjoy.
 
Caukie December 4, 2016
This is very much like my Mother's recipe. We used to do "Marathon" baking for 3 or 4 days, baking hundreds of dozens of cookies during the holidays. One year we started making the Bourbon balls and had no Bourbon. (Mom isn't a drinker) We searched the seldom opened cupboards for a substitute hoping for, perhaps, a drop of rum left. We found some Drambuie that must have been 15 years old, at least, and used that. OMG!! The balls were phenomenal! We hadn't tasted anything like it before or since. It must have been the age of the booze because I did not get the same result when I tried it again.
 
Jana December 4, 2016
These are just as my Mom made them. This made me cry so much. I miss my Mom everyday and she's been gone 11 yrs next March. I used to sneak one or more of these into my mouth when she wasn't looking (but she knew) because I loved the taste of them. She made them every single year for decades. I don't even know where her recipe is so thank you for this one!! I will make some this year in honor of Aunt Jane and my Wild Mom, Sara....
 
Maria December 4, 2016
Great story! That was my mom's recipe for bourbon balls too!
 
Linda December 4, 2016
What a lovely story, John. It made me smile and also very nostalgic. We should all have memories of someone who was special to us when we were growing up. Thank you so much for sharing it and I will certainly make these bourbon balls when I start my cookie baking next week-end. Happy holidays!
 
Rick December 4, 2016
Wonderful story! Reminded me of being a kid in mid sixties Chicago growing up in my grandfathers bar on Sheridan Ave.(the Sheridan Lounge) and being doted on by the lipstick laden ladies (and men without the lipstick) from the neighborhood. Flossie, Vivian,....Fran..I didn't know what an alcoholic was then but it didn't matter, they were full of love and that's all I felt. Curly, the old guy that had half of his foot blown off in the war and would pull his shoe and sock off to show me the damage. Buzzy, the gay guy (sshhh) that my mom would let take me to the museums. I'm sure some of them made cookies too! Thanks Food 52 foe making me tear up remembering things that I haven't thought about for a long time :)
 
tamater S. December 23, 2016
Wonderful reminiscence, Rick!