By Karen Schulz
Twenty-three years ago I attended my first cookie exchange in San Francisco, and it changed my life forever. That may sound extreme, but it is completely true. People may view a cookie party as strictly suburban, but they would be wrong. It is the perfect launch to the holidays and an excuse to drink cocktails and eat cookies with friends and strangers, no matter what your age or where you live.
I was 25, had just moved to San Francisco where I only knew two people, a friend from high school and my boyfriend, now husband, Garth. I had no job, a pittance in my pocket, and only a temporary place to lay my head. Enter Alexa!
Alexa is Garth’s friend from college and I have yet to meet a better welcome wagon. She looped me right into the mix and invited me to her cookie exchange. Of course I said yes, even though I was a little nervous about what to bake and did not know what to expect.
The party was in Alexa’s small apartment. There were probably ten girls there, all strangers to me, but by the end of the night I had ten new, wonderful friends. Alexa created the perfect stage for ushering in the holidays. She prepared a delicious dinner, gathered interesting fun people to talk to, served cocktails, and, of course, cookies. The cookies made for a great icebreaker, and we all left with samples, recipes, and new friends. It was the perfect “hen party”.
When we moved to New York City a few years later, I kept Alexa’s tradition alive. I copied her idea and started hosting my own cookie party in our tiny apartment with a hodgepodge of friends. For many years I cooked with love for everyone until it grew too big, at which point I splurged on a caterer. The party morphed and grew in new directions. One year I brought in a sushi chef, another year a friend came dressed as Santa. But some things were constant. The date was always the first Thursday of December (which ensured my house was decorated, lights were up, and I could enjoy the atmosphere all month long), and the guest list was always purposely eclectic. There were old friends, new friends, work friends, friends of friends, and my favorite category, people I bumped into now and again but always wished I saw more often. One year I even invited the girl I found myself next to in line at Starbucks each morning!
The format is everyone brings two-dozen cookies along with copies of the recipe to swap. It was hilarious to see the various approaches to the cookies. On one end of the spectrum was my friend, Nicole, who would start stressing about her recipe in August. On the other end, my friend Kim from New York City would dump a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos into a Tupperware with a typed-up list of ingredients for her “recipe.”
Eventually, it was officially too big, so I thought I would take the next year off. Instead, I handed it over to my sixth-grade daughter, Ainsley. That was seven years ago. She has been the keeper of the cookie party tradition, but now we are on the eve of yet another shift in cookie party evolution, as she will be graduating from high school next year.
Watching her usher in the holidays with an evolving orbit of beautiful friendships is incredibly heartwarming for me. We serve festive appetizers and a Gramma Napoli dinner with Caesar salad each year. She has added a Yankee Swap element to the night, which is always good for a few laughs. We buy and wrap small gifts in the $5 to $10 range, some are amazing and some are not.
And when it comes to the cookies, her friends are just like mine. Some are nervous, some are totally into it, and some are like Kim. Regardless, they love to swarm the cookies after dinner, fill their tins, and spread the holiday spirit.
So not only did Alexa’s party change my life, but it has changed my daughter’s life and, who knows where the chain will lead. All I know is I will soak up every moment of this year’s cookie party and will look forward to what next year will bring. Maybe new college friends will make an appearance, or maybe there will be a mother/daughter twist? It really doesn’t matter, as long as there is a room filled with people you love spreading holiday cheer, and, lots of cookies.