Christmas Cookies and Island-style Honesty

While I’ve never been a big holiday person, the one thing I have always looked forward to come December is the sudden influx of sugar-infused gifts for my insatiable sweet tooth to consume. From boxes of fancy chocolates, those giant caramel-corn tins, mason jars of hot chocolate mixes with those teeny marshmallows, to fudges, cookies, and homemade candies – I have always delighted in it all. Well… almost all.

One neighbor on the street of my childhood home was notorious in our household for her platters of what can only be described as “false advertising”. Her picture-perfect cookies looked like something out of Martha Stewart Living magazine though sadly, they were largely inedible. Let’s just say the woman had a thing for anise – she put that pungent extract in everything. No matter how beautifully frosted or powdered sugar-coated they appeared on the outside, every last one of those suckers was like biting into a inexplicably doughy piece of black licorice. It was truly revolting (at least to our collective familial palate), and they always ended up in the trash after the requisite 3 days they spent taunting us on our counter (just in case she happened to stop by again).

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It was such a shame, really. She would bake obsessively for days on end, coloring batches of cookie dough, braiding it into candy cane shapes, smoothing out royal icing, and meticulously adorning her “treats” with expensive edible baubles from some specialty baking store she frequented. But her efforts were wasted on us and I assume, most of the other neighbors as well. But we accepted them with feigned enthusiasm each year when she rang our bell to drop them off, cooed over how beautiful they were, and lied about how much we had been looking forward to their arrival. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Flash forward about a decade and I found myself living in the British Virgin Islands on a tiny island resort. I had moved from the USVI over to the BVI to be with my boyfriend (the operator of the resort), and in doing so, had said goodbye to most of my friends. By the time Christmas rolled around, I hadn’t met many people and was starting to feel that acute tinge of misplaced holiday loneliness we expat islanders know all too well. Tourist season was in full swing, and everyone around me was celebrating with their nearest and dearest, and I was in a bit of a limbo. My boyfriend’s job is busiest during the holidays, so I was spending more time alone than was preferable. So, in an effort to get in the spirit of the season, I decided to go Def Leppard on it and pour some sugar on me (or, you know, everyone around me).

I chose the thing I was craving most that year – Starbucks’ signature Cranberry Bliss Bars – and set out to satisfy my yen. While I was at it, I figured it would perk me up to spread the love by baking plenty to share with those around me as well. Since I didn’t have any neighbors (we were the only residents on the island), I decided that I would give treats out as gifts to the resort’s staff from my boyfriend and me.

I searched the web for a copycat recipe for the bliss bars and was thrilled when I found one, and even more thrilled when I was actually able to find the necessary ingredients (all of them!) between the local grocery stores. The first batch of bars turned out even better than I could have hoped for – it was like Starbucks was in my kitchen. My mind was blown. And I couldn’t wait to share them.

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By the time they were finished, I have to admit, I was more than a little impressed by my own Martha Stewart capacity. For each member of the staff, I had a beautifully wrapped bliss bar in all its cranberry-white-chocolate-y goodness, adorned with crafty holiday cards with each person’s name on it. I walked around the resort, handed them out to everyone personally, and went back to our apartment riding on a wave of Christmas cheer.

A couple hours later, I walked downstairs through the restaurant and was pulled aside by four servers into the wait-station. I noticed that they had a couple of my bars unwrapped on the counter in front of them.

“Did you make this?” Server 1 asked, pointing an accusatory finger at the bar in question.

Caught off guard by the decidedly un-cheery vibe of the group, I stammered out that I had, indeed, baked them myself and that they were my favorite Christmas treat from back home.

My explanation was met with frowning faces. They were not impressed.

“These are not good.” Server 1 said.

“Too sweet,” Server 2 chimed in. Servers 3 and 4 nodded their heads in agreement.

“Oh… Ok. Sorry…” I didn’t know what to do but apologize awkwardly for my offensive bars. They turned back to their side-work, and I watched Server 1 throw the uneaten bars in the trash. I shuffled off, effectively chastised.

I ran back upstairs and gave the bars another taste to make sure I hadn’t accidentally made some critical error in my subsequent batches, but they still tasted delicious to me. Urgent feedback was requested from my boyfriend and another one of his managers, but they too, thought they tasted fine – yummy, even. But among all the Caribbean islanders, the verdict was unanimous. The rest of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I received a handful of complaints from random staff members about my bars – “too sweet”, “couldn’t eat it”, “didn’t like it at all”, and other variations in the general theme of awful.

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At this point, I had been living in the islands for about 3 years and was relatively accustomed to the often brash manner of speaking inherent of the culture. And while I wish I could say I didn’t let it bother me, it was an embarrassing blow to the ego, as I had always considered myself a decent baker and had just wanted to connect with people in a positive way. #ChristmasFail

After a year’s breathing room, I felt motivated to give it a shot again the following Christmas, hoping to restore some of my dignity and make something people actually liked. I went the route of brownies – who doesn’t like brownies? Well, it turns out, a lot of people. I walked around with my tray of individually wrapped, personalized, card-bearing brownies, each with a frosted Christmas tree decorating their tops, and the uncomfortable rejection continued as I tried to distribute them. Most politely accepted the gift, only to offer their criticisms later (some even making a point to remind me of last year’s debacle), though three staff members weren’t even willing to give me a second chance, refusing it on the spot and forcing me to keep the brownies with their names on them to eat in a pool of my own shame alone later. The ferry driver actually held his hands up for mercy as I tried to hand him his brownie, as though I was instead trying to give him a square of poison. On fire.

After the initial humiliation had grown a protective scab, my logical mind was able to assess the situation with more clarity. From an actual baking perspective, I realized that I had simply not catered to my audience. I had baked to appeal to my American tongue – the tongue that had been raised to relish in hyper-sweet, corn syrup confections; the tongue that lusted after things like buttercream frosting and Twinkies and Pixy Stix. Had I not learned anything after living here all these years? When I thought back, all of the local sweets I had tried were unsatisfying and bland to me. The tarts lacked sugar in the pastry dough and always left me wishing for a glaze of some kind. A revelation: We simply have different cultural palates! Neither is better or worse, just different! My baking does not suck! #relief

As for the blatant honesty, over time, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of the most entertaining cultural quirks of living in the Caribbean. Growing up in California, so much behavior in the name of politeness is really just being two-faced, if we’re being honest with ourselves. You tell someone you like her new haircut, then remark to your co-worker-in-crime later about how unflattering it is. You plaster on a smile and tell your crazy aunt you’re excited about the hideous skirt she thinks is “so you”, then return it for store credit later. You accept platter after platter of disgusting anise cookies and tell your neighbor you think they’re delicious, then dump them.

Though politeness is something to be valued, it’s a fine line, to be sure. While honesty is appreciated, I do still find most unsolicited negative feedback I receive here on my weight, my clothing, my cookies, and other personal choices as pretty rude. But perhaps it’s just not how I was raised. That’s a part of the fun of moving somewhere else and being out of your element. You may not like or understand it all, but you can accept it for what it is, open your mind, and hopefully find a silver lining.

The silver lining for me? No more excessive holiday baking! No longer do I work for days, baking up a storm, wrapping, making cards, etc. My baking – the thought included – is not appreciated and instead of everyone pretending it is, I know without question that it is a waste of time. How about a hallelujah for that?!

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Chrissann Nickel

About Chrissann Nickel

Chrissann’s home rock in the British Virgin Islands, against all logic, feels bigger to her than it actually is. Though after spending five years on a teensy one acre island, the current 13-mile long rock she’s residing on now IS ginormous, at least by comparison. As with everything in the Caribbean, it’s all about perspective.

Once upon a time she used to care about things like matching her purse to her pumps, but these days, she’s a card-carrying member of the Barefoot Nation. She is utterly enchanted with vinyasa yoga, especially when practiced on somewhat precarious, deliciously Instagram-able surfaces (she's @WomanOnARock) such as paddleboards, boats, cliffs, or even the occasional willing friend’s body. She vehemently believes that toucans are the best animals ever (period.) and there is no convincing her otherwise (though imperious roadside goats come in as a close second).

As the Editor in Chief of this site, she spends a lot of her time working from home all by her lonesome writing, editing, and cultivating content designed to make her fellow islanders laugh. Besides her writerly pursuits, she moonlights as a yoga instructor, and attributes at least a smidge of her insanity to the amount of time she spends talking to drunk people. If you’re somehow still reading this and feel inclined to find out more about this “Chrissann” of which we speak, you can also take a gander at her eponymous personal website, www.chrissannnickel.com

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32 thoughts on “Christmas Cookies and Island-style Honesty

  1. I am teaching this year and to celebrate the last day of school before Christmas break another state side teacher and I decided to make faux gingerbread houses (graham crackers!) with the kids. Most of the kids had never heard of gingerbread houses (even though they sell the kits in K-Mart..) and then another West Indian teacher commented “How American of you. We don’t do that stuff here”. Psshh! The kids loved it and we had a great time 🙂

  2. Haha. This is a hilarious story.

    I have to admit it surprised me at first because I’ve always noticed that Caribbean folk really like sweet things – we went through an amazing amount of sugar every morning when I worked at a coffee shop. But come to think of it, when it came to baked goods, I did hear plenty “too sweet” complaints. And when we got in our special, locally-baked pound cake every once in awhile…it sold out within hours.

    My most laugh out loud moment: “… though three staff members weren’t even willing to give me a second chance, refusing it on the spot and forcing me to keep the brownies with their names on them to eat in a pool of my own shame alone later. The ferry driver actually held his hands up for mercy as I tried to hand him his brownie, as though I was instead trying to give him a square of poison. On fire.”

  3. I Feel your pain! The first time I went to Trinidad with my husband, he insisted I make Gingerbread cookies for his family while we were there. I used a recipe that has been used in my family for years and I have made many cookies over the years for my friends & people I have worked with ( they all LOVED them) . I think only my sister in-law tried a cookie, and didn’t finish it. It was “too hot”………. this is from someone who puts a Scotch Bonnet in everything she cooks! I tried not to take it too hard, it was actually quite amusing when I thought about all the Spices coming from the Caribbean! For some reason though, they managed to scarf down all the chocolate chip cookies I made 😉
    This was years ago, now Trinidad is full of NA restaurants/stores/snacks , so maybe tastes have changed.

  4. YEP…… many years of baking beautiful plates of Christmas Cookies, and delivering them to ….the poor. The poor people hardly recognized it was Christmas. We learn as we go.

    The next year, on a chilly day (under seventy) someone had purchased blankets for us to deliver. BINGO…. we brought something they needed and never would have bought themselves.

    You’re right……we can’t place our culture on top of other peoples !

    So, now, I still bake cookies, and share them with my American friends, and continue to bring our locals what they need.

    Merry Christmas !!

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