In Dale’s family, Valentine’s Day is affectionately called “Cream Puff Day.” I still remember our first Valentine’s Day together, back in 1997. Dale and I used to meet at his house for lunch every day back then and he greeted me at the back door with a plate of cream puffs and the exclamation, “Happy Cream Puff Day, baby.” I asked him why we had cream puffs on Valentine’s Day and he said he didn’t know why but his mother always made them and it was a tradition.
Me being a librarian, I had to know the whole story so I walked next door and asked Dale’s mother, Ruthie, to explain the cream puff tradition. She told me that it dated back to Valentine’s Day, 1948. She and Dale’s father, Jack, who was in the Air Force, were stationed in Roswell, New Mexico (yes, that Roswell – but that’s another story) and she was pregnant with her first baby. They had no money to buy Valentines for anyone and she really wanted to do something special for the guys in Jack’s unit. So she turned to her cookbooks and looked for something she could bake to give as gifts to these men. She found a recipe for cream puffs and realized that she had all the ingredients on hand and they sounded pretty simple to make. And a tradition was born.
By the time I came along, Ruthie was making dozens of cream puffs every Valentine’s Day. She complained about how much work it was and how much time it took to make so many but I’m pretty sure she secretly loved the task. She made them for her and Jack plus their kids and grandkids. I was horrified when I realized that none of Dale’s kids even liked the cream puffs but Dale never told his mother because then she wouldn’t have given him as many. Then I tasted one and realized that sometimes a little deception is a wonderful thing.
During the last few years of Ruthie’s life, she was unable to make the cream puffs anymore. Jack, wanting to carry on the tradition, purchased them from a bakery instead but they just weren’t as good as Ruthie’s. So last year, on the first Valentine’s Day without dear Ruth, I made the cream puffs. I was a little hesitant to do this. After all, I’m not Ruthie’s daughter, I’m just her daughter-in-law and it seemed like I was maybe overstepping my bounds by taking on a family tradition as deep as this one. But Dale encouraged me to go for it and Jack said it would be okay – so I did it. I’ll never forget the look on Jack’s face when he tried one and said they were as good as Ruthie’s. And Dale’s sister Lisa’s eyes filled with tears when she took a bite of hers, so I guess I did okay by Ruthie’s cream puffs.
And now, somehow, this has become my tradition, too.