Growing up near Rocky Ford, Colorado, the self-proclaimed Melon Capital of the World, Judith Choate began cooking at age 5 to help her widowed, working mom. She made meals from scratch, canned food with her mother and aunts and, throughout the winter, retrieved carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables from a deep storage hole in the backyard. At Christmastime, she and her mom baked mounds of cookies, candies and cakes to give as gifts.
“We were not wealthy by any means,” recalls Choate, 73, an experienced chef, corporate consultant and award-winning author of more than 100 cookbooks. “Nonetheless, we had a huge Christmas. The tree was important, and the food was even more important.”
As a young bakery owner and widowed mother of two in New York City, she kept the tradition alive. Each Christmas when her children were growing up, she crafted a gingerbread house and decorated the tree with homemade cookies. “One morning I woke up and saw that my cookies were strangely black,” Choate says, laughing. “I looked down at the floor and here were little trails of tiny kitchen ants. They had climbed up the tree, and all of the cookies were covered in ants.”
Although Choate’s boys loved to help in the kitchen when they were children, they seemed to lose interest as teenagers. That didn’t last long. Chris is now a wine professional, while Michael, who’s known for his elegant French dishes, represents food writers as a literary agent. Both still call their mom for advice.
Now a new generation of Choates is honing its culinary skills. Grandson Alexander, 17, “is getting more and more adventuresome at the table,” according to Choate. Granddaughter Clara, 15, is a born hostess who savors the camaraderie of family gatherings. Canada, 18, a talented cake maker, has been baking banana bread with “MooMoo” since she was 4.
Two weeks before Christmas, the Choates gather to decorate sugar cookies for Michael’s annual tree-trimming party. These days, the ants don’t stand a chance—the goodies always disappear before the last ornament is in place.
Choate still makes and bakes many of her gifts, including jams, her “never-fail” fudge and fruitcakes from her Scottish grandmother’s recipe. “I think people appreciate something you’ve made yourself,” she notes. “It says, ‘I really cared enough about you to take some time out of my day to share something with you.’”
Choate’s new memoir-like cookbook, “An American Family Cooks,” began as an unruly diary that simmered on her desk for 10 years and includes essays by Michael and Chris and commentary from her grandchildren.
For Choate, cooking is a way for the family to bond. What’s more, she says, “Passing down recipes is passing down family history.”