I’ve never been to a cookie exchange — ones where everyone shows up with their plate of cookies, ready for swapping with other attendees. So, when we put out a call for Seattle-area cookie exchange parties and the stories of their origins, I had no clue what to expect.
We received nearly 40 stories of heartwarming gatherings. After speaking with women from five Seattle-area cookie exchange networks, it became clear that while these gatherings started with cookies at the center, they quickly grew to mean much more. These groups’ parties — which have run from 14 to 50 years — are about celebrating community, connection and friendship. Some took a break during the past two pandemic years, while others gathered outdoors — one even had a virtual cookie party. These people have witnessed each other’s lives — marriages, births, deaths — and marked the years with butter, sugar, flour and sprinkles.
There was the tale of the neighborhood block that holds raucous cookie parties complete with imaginative stories told in hope of winning a trophy. An account of a mother-and-daughter tea party cookie exchange that goes back 50 years. Stories of competitive women laying their competitive nature (and tennis rackets) down and coming together over tables piled high with cookies, and women who first got together to poke fun at cookie parties but who, over a decade later, have serious rules about their lavishly decorated cookies.
“Getting together was a culmination of our memories of all year long or over the years and just being together and reminiscing and all the things we’ve accomplished and done,” said Kat Dunkle, who’s been a part of a holiday cookie exchange for nearly 50 years.
Adds Carol J. Levin, who’s been in a cookie exchange since 1981: “It’s about friends and families and generations and artistic celebration and a hilarious day of fun.”
Which in a nutshell, is the holiday magic we’re all chasing, right? The goal is to spend time catching up with loved ones. To fill our hearts with laughter. And to see just how many cookies we can eat in one sitting.
If you — like me — have never been to a cookie exchange, here are five amazing examples of the power of the cookie. There’s still time for new traditions.
The Great Phinney Ridge Cookie Party
In the winter of 2008, Kari Aguila’s family had just moved to Phinney Ridge. She had an infant son, a 2-year-old daughter and “was desperate for friends.”
“There were 23 kids on our block under 16 and probably a quarter of the people on the block already knew each other. I was like, “we’re going to have a party,” ” Aguila says.
So she went around the neighborhood, slipping handmade paper invitations for a cookie party under every neighbor’s door. But not just any cookie party — people had to bring a cookie and tell a story about why they had brought that cookie.
“That first year, it was ‘getting to know you’ stories, but by the second year people were doing fanciful, made-up stories. We started getting poems and haikus, one year we got a PowerPoint presentation,” Aguila says.
People took the cookie party extremely seriously. By year six Aguila had to put a time limit on stories and she and her husband bought a cheap gold-colored plastic trophy — paying extra for a “N 71st Street Cookie Champion” plaque on the base.
“You’d swear it was the Stanley Cup, the way they fight over it,” she says with a laugh.
As host, Aguila serves as the judge, and while the cookies are a bonus, it’s really the story that makes her crown a winner. In 14 years (including December 2020 when the party was held via Zoom), no one has ever won the trophy twice. There are even some who’ve been coming for 14 years and never won the trophy.
After their kids — Marin (16), Rowan (14) and Skylar (11) — started school, the party expanded beyond the neighborhood to include classmates, like Lucy (9) and Lila (11) Exnicios. The sisters attended their first cookie party last year and walked away with the trophy. Their story was that the girls made the cookies from scratch by themselves.
Even though it’s not about the cookies, some great ones make an appearance. Bill Wilson’s pizzelles, for one. “And we know Trista [Uecker] is going to bring those green wreaths and Maggie [Czajkiewicz] is going to bring some peppermint bark,” Aguila says.
Aguila is already gearing up for this year’s cookie party, scheduled for Dec. 17. The house on North 71st Street is slowly getting its Christmas trimmings, and the meat pies she makes every year fill the freezer in anticipation of the great cookie party and the stories her neighbors will tell.
“Having a sense of community and people who care about us and watch out for us has been one of the really beautiful things about living on our block,” Aguila says.
The Mother-Daughter Tea
Nancy Axell was an elementary school teacher on Mercer Island in the ’70s. When her youngest daughter Kelly was in third grade, the school got a new superintendent who had a daughter of the same age. The superintendent asked if Axell would get together with his daughter Molly and his wife, Shan Currie.
Axell had a small collection of Nutcracker dolls, so she thought. “Why not throw a Nutcracker-themed tea for a few mothers and daughters?” They’d have lunch and go see a children’s version of “The Nutcracker.”
Fifty years later, these mothers and daughters still meet for tea and cookies one day in December. The same seven daughters — Lori Anderson, Becky Brandt, Janice Lyon, Kelly Togeson, Merrie Tullar, Molly Watts and Joan Wold, — and mothers — Nancy Axell, Peggy Black, Shan Currie, Greta Hackett, Connie Huber, Lyn Porter and Harriet Wolfe — kept the tradition going. Though, among the mothers, only Black and Axell are still alive.
They don’t live in the same city any more — the daughters, now in their 50s, are spread from Alaska to Oregon — but each year they make a point to get together and celebrate.
Each of the girls is the youngest in their own families — but despite each having older siblings, no other family members were traditionally invited.
“They might have wanted to come, but they realized it was special,” Axell says.
The tradition of going to the ballet only lasted a few years, but the tea and cookies remained as the core of the party that’s held each year at Axell’s Mercer Island home. She and Togeson bring out a silver tea service and mismatched teacups and saucers — heirlooms from Axell’s aunt. They make fancy tea sandwiches — the favorite being a deviled ham with cream cheese and crushed pineapple — and cookies, usually molasses dipped in white chocolate or Jimmy Carters — a cookie made with cornflakes and peanut butter. The other women also bring cookies for sharing: Nanaimo bars, cranberry cookies, chocolate-peppermint crinkle cookies.
“It’s not really about the cookie, it’s the sugar,” Togeson says.
“We’re just so glad to see each other,” Axell adds. “The friendship the girls have is terrific and it’s fun to sit back and watch them talk and laugh and have such a good time together.”
The party is already set for Dec. 10 for this year, still at Azell’s, although she now lives in an apartment on Mercer Island. It’s a full weekend of friendship, with cocktails Friday, the party on Saturday, followed by dinner and a sleepover and holiday shopping the day after.
“After college and high school, we’d still all manage to make it to the tea party at least, and I think that made it special for everyone who wanted to reconnect. You know how life gets away,” Togeson says.
The Chicago crew that celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah
In 1981, Carol J. Levin and her best friend Gayle McDougall-Treacy drove to Seattle from Chicago together — leaving their husbands Steve and Dan behind with the moving van. The two couples lived together in Chicago and when they arrived in Seattle they rented a house together for a few years before buying a home in Ravenna together and raising their kids under one roof for six years before the Levins moved out.
It was a mixed-religion household, and during the winter holidays, one room would be decorated for Christmas, the other for Hanukkah; they met in the middle over cookies.
McDougall-Treacy teases that Levin has a little “Jewish envy for Christmas cookies.”
“I’m a cookie-aholic,” Levin says with a laugh.
The duo made cookies together while living in Chicago and continued the tradition after settling in Seattle. Soon, they brought in their friend, Margo Siegenthaler (another Chicago transplant) and the “Cookie Madness” party grew and grew. While the two couples haven’t lived together in decades, the cookie party is the biggest holiday tradition their families have. It’s still almost always held at McDougall-Treacy’s house in Ravenna, although she no longer lives in the original house the two couples bought together.
Now, Levin spends weeks filling her freezer with gingerbread, cherry-hazelnut biscotti, chocolate-lemon crinkles, and sugar cookies — she’ll bring more than a dozen varieties to the party. The day before, Levin and McDougall-Treacy’s daughter, Erin McDougall, spend the day whipping together meringue powder, powdered sugar and water for icing, mixing colors and decanting them into dozens of little squeeze bottles.
Siegenthaler brings her signature poppy seed cutout cookies, and other guests bring cookies to exchange. The day of the party, McDougall-Treacy’s husband Dan makes a big pot of minestrone soup and the house fills with friends and family who spend the day decorating cookies, eating, drinking and catching up. All decorated cookies go onto a table for admiring and people can choose to bring home their own cookies or ones others have decorated.
The party this year is set for Dec. 17. Levin is already baking.
The Seattle tennis ladies
Started: They don’t remember!
The Tennis World facility in South Seattle was where, nearly 50 years ago, Kat Dunkle met her lifelong friends; Atsuko Arner, Ann Carratt, Patty Centioli, Tosh Fujicado, Trudy Jutte, Sally Kawaguchi, Roseanne Larson and Emi Tanaguchi.
“We all met playing tennis and we just gelled,” Kat Dunkle says.
The women were all in their early 30s at the time — juggling kids and careers — but one winter they gathered at Ann Carratt’s West Seattle home for a holiday cookie party.
“Ann was probably the classiest act of all of us,” Dunkle says.
Ann would make eight dozen cookies and package each dozen in individual tins. The table was set with a delicate lace tablecloth, festive red goblets posted at each place setting along with plenty of holiday-themed trimmings; red taper candles and tiny wooden reindeer. The women all brought cookies — many making the same cookie year after year — and placed them on platters before sitting down to what Dunkle calls a “huge salad bar” luncheon.
“We’d have our salad bar and have our cookies and get sick,” she laughs.
No husbands or families were allowed — but the cookies each of the “Tennis Ladies” brought were legendary to their families.
“The baby of our group, Roseanne Larson, tells this story: We went to Emi’s son’s wedding, and we were in the receiving line to meet the bride and groom. The groom wanted to know what cookie I made, as we had never met the kids in the group, so he only knew us by what cookie we made,” Dunkle said.
Despite advancing age, the women gathered with cookies annually until a few years ago. Now, some of the Tennis Ladies scatter for warmer climates during the winter months. Still, their bond of friendship is strong, and they recently gathered for lunch in downtown Seattle at Cafe Nordstrom.
“Getting together continues to bring us such joy, especially remembering our beautiful cookie exchanges,” Dunkle says.
The ladies-only fancy cookie party
The party that Julie Cooper, Kelly Ryan and Neysa Koury throw every year started in 2001 as a joke.
“I’m from New York, my parents live on the Upper East Side and I read this story about these cookie parties where rich women were having parties but not actually baking their own cookies and instead having cookies made,” Cooper says.
So the trio decided to throw a “rich lady cookie party.” They invited a handful of friends, got dressed up and then the funniest thing happened: “It ended up being a lot of fun,” Cooper says.
Now the ladies-only party is an opportunity for upward of 50 women to gather in their holiday attire over wine, charcuterie platters and plenty of cookies. The only rule is no store-bought cookies.
“If you come and you don’t have a chance to bake, still come,” Cooper says. Instead they ask people to bring wine or something to add to the appetizer table.
They don’t judge cookies outright — but every year there is one cookie that makes a splash because “we have a good friend who is an amazing baker, a hobbyist who makes the most gorgeous cookies and no one wants to put their cookies next to her,” Cooper says.
There’s also the friend who makes dog biscuits for everyone’s furry friends. Or Cooper’s friend Frana Milan who makes Ohio-famous buckeyes each year. There are gluten-free cookies and vegan cookies. And while they haven’t had the party for two years because of COVID-19 precautions, they’ve already set Dec. 10 as the date this year.
“It’s not Christmas. It’s ‘let’s get festive,’” Cooper says. “With the past two years being what they are, people are just excited to have a party, go to a party and celebrate. We made it through! And who doesn’t love to eat cookies, and drink wine and eat cheese?”