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A Christmas Krachel

Updated: Apr 14

A batch of raw krachels about to get fried
A batch of raw krachels about to get fried

I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina by a couple of caring foodies, so it’s little surprise that I’ve grown up to love cooking. Itto, my life partner, was born and raised in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco by abusive relatives who forced her to feed them, so it’s little surprise that she’s grown up to hate cooking.

My formative years were spent learning to navigate the farmer’s markets and health food stores where my parents worked, subsisting on mealy, write-off fruits and dented cans of GMO-free beans whenever we didn’t have money for groceries. Itto first came to the US in 2017, and forty-eight months is not a lot of time to master America’s punishingly byzantine food system. She grew up in a country that, for all its faults, has a genuine culinary tradition in which most foods are made out of actual food, not enigmatic cocktails of pesticides and Yellow Dye Five synthesized by white-suited men in clandestine bunkers somewhere under Ohio, then focus-group tested. Even when the milk was sour or the vegetables were bad, she could work that out for herself by taste and smell, but being totally blind, she stands little chance against our wax-slickened tomatoes and eggplants refrigerated into tasteless oblivion, or our layers and layers and layers and layers of non-degradable packaging.

All this is to say that Itto’s aversion to the culinary arts is understandable. Usually, I do the cooking, and we both do the eating, and that works out swimmingly.

Less understandable, at least from my vantage, was her abrupt reversal on Christmas Eve of 2021. The holiday season rolled around, affording her a break from work — she was halfway through an internship with the United Nations — and a latent, inexplicable urge to bake rose up in her and overpowered all other priorities.

She began with an enormous batch of cookies full of peanut butter, dates, and gluten-free flour to accommodate her gluten allergy (and stirred by my hands to accommodate her decision that she didn’t feel like stirring any longer). These were an unqualified success, according to me and our neighbors and friends.

So far, so good.

Then came the krachels.

“Qurishlaat,” is what they’re called in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), but type that into Google — as I did while trying to figure out what the hell Itto was doing with seven eggs, a cup of milk, a cup of oil, a cup of water, a package of yeast, and approximately fourteen tons of gluten-free flour, the entire contents of our fridge — and you won’t find much. What you’ll find, if you have the presence of mind to add the qualifier “Moroccan sweet bun,” is “Did you mean ‘krachel’?”

No, I did not mean “krachel.” But “krachel” is precisely what I got.

Channeling the ethos of the ostrich, Itto has always claimed that when she lost her sight, she was also relieved of her facial expressions. Having witnessed her face when she heard me pronounce the word “krachel” for the first time, I beg to differ.

“What is that?” she demanded.

“It’s what you’re making,” I explained. “Apparently.”

I knew we were in trouble even before she “borrowed” half a pound of all-purpose flour from a neighbor, then sent me out into Kansas City’s gloomy, dystopian Christmas-Eve traffic for more. So did she, I learned later, during the post-mortem. We knew we were in trouble, but like Cassandra and Zarqa before us, our foreknowing did us no good. By the time the mixture achieved an approximately dough-like consistency, not to mention the weight and rough dimensions of an infant silverback gorilla, we’d transcended simply knowing that we were in trouble. We’d becoming blood sacrifices at the altar of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. We’d passed the point of no return.

I hadn’t yet moved in with Itto, and because she’s not a baker, she didn’t have a full set of baking dishes. In the cupboard, I found a nine-by-thirteen-inch glass tray, two eight-by-eights, and a bread pan…and that’s about all. Somehow, with these humble tools, we now had to find a way to bake a quantity of dough that, in more entrepreneurial hands, could’ve radically reshaped the business model of the Play-Doh corporation, or stuffed several taxidermy elephants.

At least we thought that was the task before us. But then we baked the first few rounds of gray-green dough and realized that, although crackers might’ve been the final product’s closest living kin, invoking the word “cracker” would’ve surely constituted a grave and unforgiveable insult sparking several generations of blood feud. The powdery discs that emerged from the oven, tasting vaguely of split pea soup and unfinished upholstery, were not to be salvaged.

We weren’t to be discouraged, either, though. We soldiered on.

Though raised grass-fed, organic, and free-range, I grew up smack-dab in the heart of the American South and absorbed through osmosis the central tenet of the region’s cuisine, and American cooking more broadly: when a recipe’s not going quite the way you planned, there’s but one thing to do.

You fry it.

You fry it in oil.

Just about any oil’ll do. Cow fat. Hog grease. Good old-fashioned lard.

Horse oil’d work in a pinch, I reckon.

Squirrel errl, may-haps.

Gator oil.

There’s no limit once you start getting creative. And creative’s what you gotta be when you’re dealing with krachels.

In that moment, with that revelation, I felt myself borne on the headwinds of a long and illustrious history, beginning with the dewclaws of ringworm-struck cattle reworked into chitlins by the Old South’s poorest, most resourceful chefs, and ending with the double-stuffed Oreos baked into mass-produced chocolate chip cookie dough and dropped into county fair deep-friers. I wasn’t just scrambling to salvage several hundred dollars’ worth of gluten-free dough — two weeks of our grocery budget rolled into one big, shaggy mass. I was keeping up a noble tradition.

With this spirit, I went to work. I fired up the stovetop, and I started frying krachels.

Qurishlaat, according to Itto’s descriptions, are fluffy, faintly sweetened pastry breads. The closets equivalent for the American pallet might be the hypothetical midpoint between a dinner roll and a hamburger bun.

Krachels, on the other hand, are small, peculiar orbs, crisp and umber on the outside, but raw and green within.

“What kind of green?” Itto wanted to know. “Dark green? Or grass green?”

“Sea green,” I clarified. “If someone just vomited overboard.”

Think hushpuppies, but diseased. “Or cow poops!” she suggested, palming one. And yet, what they lacked in charisma, our krachels made up for in numbers. They overflowed their plates. They colonized the countertops. They lounged on dishtowels and filled up the Tupperware. They stretched our endurance to the limit, not to mention our storage capacity. That saga started around 3:00 p.m., and come 11:00 in the evening, we still had krachels frying on the stove.

Maybe the reused oil fumes were going to my head, but the more I fried, the more my Southern heritage came bubbling up. Seized by some formerly dormant hillbilly poesis, I began to speak in tongues. “Reckon we could patent krachels, now,” I expatiated, splashing dough balls into hot canola. “Sell ’em for twenty-five dollars a pound! Toss ’em in a sack — no, no, a satchel! A satchel full of krachels! That’d sell at the county fair. ‘Handmade, artisanal Moroccan krachels,’ authentic as what-all. Sell ’em with cookbooks or serve ’em with sides, crazy beans, mess of greens, just don’t even get me started. You know you’re getting hungry!”

Itto had learned seven languages back in Morocco, and after attending the University of Arkansas, she’d started picking up an eighth. “We could sell one krachel for faaav dollas!” she proposed, rolling another sphere of dough. “And a sack for twenny-faaav!”

“Whip us up some customers, and I’m thinking then we raise our prices,” I went on, “’specially if it turns out krachels are good for curing COVID, which I’m thinking there’s a good chance they might be. Stranger medical miracles’ve happened, after all. What do you say?”

“Do they look cute?” she wanted to know before committing.

“Cutest krachels I ever laid eyes on.”

She agreed that she should leave the UN, and we’d start a business selling krachels.

But as the ranks of krachels mounted, our good mood began to turn.

“Where do you reckon all these cute little krachels are going to live?” I inquired.

She started clearing out the freezer.

“Good idea,” I agreed, trying and failing to banish from my mind a stream of unbidden images from the Star Trek: Original Series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” “Wouldn’t want to burn through all our krachels ’fore it’s even Valentine’s! This way, we’ll have ’em all year round.”

As it happened, we didn’t have Ziplocs.

“That’s all right,” I reassured us both. “When something needs savin’, here’s what you do: you get yourself a Walmart bag, you tie it off, you toss it in the freezer. Might even take two or three Walmart bags with all these krachels, but that’s all right.”

So, that’s what we did. As the krachels cooled, Itto shoveled them into plastic bags, tied off the tops, and jammed them in the freezer. A substantial quantity of ice went down the drain to make room, but before long, we’d stashed all our krachels in the icebox for safekeeping.

The following morning, Itto heated up faaav whole krachels and did her damnedest to eat them with beans. A little while later, she went ahead and excavated the rest from the freezer so she could put them where they truly belonged.

The trash didn’t get picked up right away because of the holidays, so for several days, all the neighbors on her floor were treated to the languid, greasy smell of krachels past their prime. Pretty soon, though, the garbage collectors came around and carted off a fortnight’s worth of vittles and a year’s worth of dreams.

Come January, Itto decided she might as well resume her work with the United Nations.

For many months, I hoped that we might recoup our losses, hefty though they were, with revenue earned from publishing this brief account in a reputable, well-paying magazine. I even dreamed of finding a community of readers, thinkers, and culinary connoisseurs who might be chomping at the bit to preorder our next batch of krachels for fitty-faaav dollars a pound. If so, it might’ve been a Christmas miracle — but given the niche appeal of our concoction, and the general dearth of such magazines, we eventually ended up cutting our losses and publishing “A Christmas Krachel” here.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this motley dish and look forward to serving up more.

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