The value of a good next door neighbor is not to be underestimated. Living for years in anonymous city apartments on anonymous streets was enough to make me appreciate what we had growing up on Wagon Wheel Lane. My parents moved to their new home there in June 1968. They had four children, and the youngest at the time, me, was a newborn. Not too long after that, number five arrived. If my mother thought she was busy making a lot of bologna sandwiches, she needed only look to her right to see Barb Georgi with her five children, to her left to see Dee Zawacki with her three girls, or across the street to see Ellen Fata with her six, to know that she was in good company.
These women of Wagon Wheel Lane were not desperate housewives. They took care of their own, and their neighbors. My mother loves these women as sisters, and they love her right back.
Mrs. Georgi taught me how to swim. Sure, I had taken real lessons, and hated them. My scrappy little frame was nowhere near up to the challenge of swimming the full length of an Olympic-sized pool, and essentially, I failed. Still, along with all of my siblings, I was swimming almost daily next door. Mrs. Georgi kept an open-gate policy for us, and we tip-toed through the yard and past the back porch where Mr. Georgi was taking his nap after a long day at work in his butcher shop. Barb joined us in the pool and would not accept that I failed my swim class. She taught my sister and me to float, and then to swim the width of the pool, then the length. I think it was her smile that calmed me down and inspired in me the desire to bake chocolate chip cookies and take them to her back door (or was it her son Jim, the boy next door, who inspired that in me? She raised the kind of son who would embrace me just after my shattered-dreams divorce as we buried my sister-in-law, when I wondered aloud where in the world I would be buried one day. He said: “your husband will want you with him.”). Barb knew how to make a kid feel special. When I graduated from high school, she gave me a leather stationery set with my initials on it, and inside was a prayer card, worn at the edges, that she told me she’d had since she was a girl. Now it was mine to pray, she said, so it would keep me safe and sound. And it has. She’s also the only person besides my mother who has looked into my eyes in the afternoon sun and noticed that they are more green than brown, more like hazel, and said so.
Mrs. Fata is the Italian mother every person should get to grow up across the street from. In that house she and her family have made their own wine, stuffed their own sausage, and feasted on the seven fishes every Christmas Eve. When Ellen talks, you listen, because she says things with such humor and invites you in for a taste of whatever is bubbling on the stove; that’s after she’s gone to daily Mass every morning. The delivery truck from their family wholesale food service business used to back up into our driveway and load our basement cabinets with things like hot fudge sauce in individual cups and frozen raw pizza rounds for baking with your own sauce and cheese. When my grandmother died, Phil Fata brought over the most delicious lasagna any of us has ever eaten, and he says “it was just lasagna” when we ask him how he does it. Phil has the distinguished honor, along with my brother Tom, of authoring the graffiti in the little room under the basement stairs that reads to this day: “Tom and Phil is cool.” Ellen’s husband Frank was one of my father’s best friends. They were such good friends they decided to die the same way, of pancreatic cancer, a few years apart.
Mrs. Zawacki has the greenest thumb on the planet, and spends her spring, summer, and fall days in the yard. She keeps a bird bath in view from her kitchen window, which I think she said her husband Bob put there for her when their youngest, Elaine, was born. Mrs. Z. kept a Polish kitchen and that meant we had plates of her chrusciki, ethereal fried cookies crowned with powdered sugar. The three Zawacki daughters were blonde movie stars, and Elaine was our favorite babysitter. She taught me how to peel a peach by immersing it in a mug of hot water, so the skin slips right off. When Mr. Zawacki died unexpectedly, and too young, just before Elaine was to marry Ed, another movie star, she sat in our sunroom talking quietly with my parents about what to do. Have the wedding, they said. That’s what Bob would have wanted. Bob was the kind of guy who built his own sailboat and then took all of my brothers out on the lake with him for his maiden voyage.
All of the neighbors had dogs, Tanya and Cocoa and Shadow. This gave us a nice taste of doggie-fun without having one ourselves (ok, there was Mandy, but that was only a three-month affair). I won’t mention Minka, the dog of the neighbor behind us who pummeled me one morning for cutting through his territory. We used to shoot like lightening to the top of the monkey bars in the backyard whenever Minka came round, and yell out “Go home, Minka!” That dog had fangs and could bark like a sonofabitch. But I could scream louder.
The women of Wagon Wheel Lane all became widows. Mrs. Zawacki was the first, and Mrs. Georgi was the last. Her husband Bob, a WWII war hero and man of great charm, died early last year. Then Barb followed him out the door last week. After the funeral there was a luncheon, and on the wall a slideshow recounted the years and the fun and the love. I cried like a baby through the whole thing. Of course we weep for ourselves when we weep for the death of another. But I also wept for our now empty, for-sale house on Wagon Wheel Lane, and how lucky we were to grow up in a place where you really did walk next door to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbors.
Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
I’ve adapted this excellent recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. Their trustworthy test kitchen recommends Ghirardelli chocolate chips, and so do I. Do use fresh dark brown sugar (don’t substitute light brown) and unsalted butter; salted butter has more water in it and that affects the cookie texture. Remember a few baking basics, and you’re going to have boy-next-door-worthy cookies in no time.
1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 ¾ ounces)
½ teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 ¾ sticks), divided into 10 and 4 tablespoons
½ cup granulated sugar (3 ½ ounces)
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 ¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
¾ cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted, or dried cherries (optional)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18- by 12-inch), heavy baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda in medium bowl; set aside.
Heat 10 tablespoons of the butter in skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Take care not to burn the butter (it can happen quickly). Transfer hot browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.
Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times for a total of four times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain. Chill the dough for 20 minutes.
Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons. Don’t be afraid of how big these are. Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but will require 3 batches.)
Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.
These cookies taste divine when reheated in the microwave for 10-15 seconds. The chocolate melts and gets all over your fingers. Chase with a glass of cold milk, and baby, that’s all she wrote.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.