On the first Saturday in December, every year for the past 50 years, thousands of Christmas cookies have gone on sale at Trinity Church in Solebury, Pennsylvania. Even with a limit of two boxes per customer (each box weighs a pound and contains about fifty cookies), they are usually sold out within 45 minutes.
This annual Cookie Bake—both the sale itself and the flurry of preparation that precedes it—is a tradition that continues to conjure up the feel of the rural agricultural community that Solebury used to be. I'm a relative newcomer, having moved here, to central Bucks County, from Connecticut just over five years ago with my husband, David, who is now rector at this Episcopal church. Bucks County is still home to rolling fields and old fieldstone barns, but it's also one of the hottest growth areas in the state, with new dwellings cropping up where soybeans once grew. The stone chapel built by a few farm families in 1876 is now crowded with old-timers and new members alike—the former reminiscing about the way this area used to look half a century ago, the latter, like me, knowing mostly the culture of suburbia.
Cookie Bake had its origins just after World War II, when a small group of women at Trinity Church started baking cookies to sell at their Christmas bazaar. They alone controlled allocation of the proceeds, making donations as they chose to charities or towards church improvements. As times changed, however, so did the group. In the 1960s and '70s, as women started working outside the home and thus had less time for unpaid good works, men started helping out at Cookie Bake. Soon, teenagers, children, and even people not affiliated with the church were welcomed. Somehow, this socially diverse community has clung to this tradition in an effort to hold on to what it believes in—a strong connection with neighbors and friends. Now, over a hundred of us participate, volunteering for one or more of the three-hour cookie-making shifts that begin at 9 a.m. and sometimes run until 9 p.m. for six days. In that time, we bake about twenty thousand cookies. And even though we know that the money we raise every year from Cookie Bake (about $1,700 in 1996) is probably equaled by a few leisurely passes of the plate on Sunday mornings, we carry on staging it. The people of Trinity Church and their friends stopped baking Christmas cookies for the money a long time ago. Now we're baking for the life of the community.
Preparations for Cookie Bake begin months before the holidays. In July, while everyone else is still on vacation, Mary Beth Kineke—co-chair of this year's event—starts scouring the Wednesday food sections of the local papers for the best price on butter. When our local Delray grocery store lists it at $1.29 a pound, she buys more than a hundred pounds of it and makes room for it in her freezer. At the end of the summer, Sue Scholer sets out (at around the time her daughter heads off to college) for Sam's Club and loads up the back of her new Jeep Cherokee with the 250 pounds of flour and 225 pounds of sugar needed to make over a quarter of a ton of dough. In early October, Libbe Mason, manager of the local library, heads to a wholesaler in Philadelphia where she purchases the 15 pounds of blanched whole almonds required for our signature cookie—the almond round. Then, of course, there are decorations to locate, boxes of parchment paper to buy, cookie cutters to round up, and inventory to take (How many cookie sheets and rolling pins do we have?).
In November, when the jack-o'-lantern faces of Halloween have shriveled into a parody of senescence and the pungent smoke from leaf-burning fires fills the sky with wisps of gray, everyone in and around Solebury knows that cookie-baking time is near. Trinity Church's KitchenAid mixer emerges, and a call goes out for other heavy-duty mixers. A week or two before Cookie Bake begins, a smaller group of us gets together to make the dough. Finding cold storage for such a huge amount until baking day is a problem, but this year, the local high school has donated space in its cafeteria's walk-in.
Almond splitting is the first official Cookie Bake occasion. About eight of us gather in the homey church kitchen to prepare the almonds. The room warms up quickly, and the scent of steaming nuts intensifies. (Steaming softens the almonds so that we can easily halve them with small, sharp knives.) Since our cookie dough is rolled out almost paper-thin, raw almonds would never be sufficiently toasted by the time the cookies had baked. So the almonds, once split, are slid into the oven for a preliminary browning.
Halfway through the tedious task, I invariably ask my coworkers, "Is this really worth it?" Then I add—half-seriously—that I would gladly donate all 15 pounds of sliced almonds myself to save us some time. Although shortcuts have been adopted over the years, almond splitting is sacred. "I would not want to be the one to stop the tradition," Cathy Stephens, a nursery school teacher's aide, tells me. Nor, in reality, would I.
Cookie Bake is like a modern quilting bee. We all work together closely for hours, many of us taking double shifts. The conversation, conducted without eye contact and punctuated by silences, hovers above the work at hand. You find out who's the best dentist in town. We talk about our kids—those who have long since left home and those who are still in diapers. Wisdom passes from one generation to the next. As I quietly brush star-shaped cookies with egg wash, I listen to the stories. Mollie Hallowell, a writer and longtime church member, tells the tale of Crofton Thompson, the former Trinity Church minister whose wife and unborn child were killed in a car accident just before he arrived in Solebury. Peg Clark and her young son Michael drop candy holly leaves onto cookies that look like wreaths, while Betty Fergusson recalls her life in the Red Cross during World War II. At the rolling station, church treasurer Doug McArthur, a retired accountant, meets Luda Makhinia, a recent immigrant from the Ukraine. Their conversation—with Makhinia struggling for every English word—would normally last just a few awkward minutes. But because they are bonded by a common task, silence is absorbed in their work and conversation comes when it will. Before long, McArthur offers to help Makhinia file her income tax return.