If you live in or near New Ulm, MN, and you’ve enjoyed a Christmas cookie that you didn’t bake yourself in the past three decades, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed the wares of the Searles Cookie Walk. The Walk is a fundraising tradition going strong in its 30th year, staffed by volunteers of the St. John the Baptist Local Council of Catholic United Financial.
Carol Waibel of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Searles, Minn., and Joyce Griebel, the fraternal secretary of the St. John the Baptist Local Council, must raise their voices to be heard over the kitchen commotion. All around them, volunteers hustle and bustle by dutifully fulfilling a Christmas tradition stretching back 30 years.
The tradition is their Annual Cookie Walk and going 30 years back, the group was proud to raise the $500 needed to earn a $500 match from Catholic United’s matching grant program. Now, the fundraiser pulls in close to $20,000 every year.
Thanks to 30 years of word-of-mouth advertising and an increasingly tech savvy team of organizers, the Cookie Walk crew bakes tens of thousands of hand-made, individually-iced sugar cookies, biscuits, scotcharoos, macaroons and 15 other varieties. Carol explains, “When we first got together we just baked cookies here and had people bring some [from home]. At some point we felt we really needed to get a handle on this. That’s when we started taking orders.”
The event has become a yearly gathering; ten days of hard work and solidarity bringing joy across the region by simply enjoying the act of creating something beautiful — and delicious.
All ages help, from kids who just started grade school all the way up to 91-year-olds.
“It’s just so nice seeing so many people from the community, not just the parish, participate. We lost one of our senior members this year. It was just a joy working with him,” Joyce says. “This event helps make connections with all ages and people.”
“I think it’s the camaraderie that we have here in this small parish, it’s just fantastic,” Carol says. “If we ever have something going on we can always count on the parishioners to be here for us.”
The organizing crew begins to feel the annual urge to coalesce around September. One organizer is a farmer, so they work around his schedule to meet and plan the schedule, marketing, and whether they’ll stick with the same cookie lineup or if they’ll try something new. They’re up to 19 varieties, most of which are from Linda Waibel’s personal stash of recipes.
Measuring by cups and teaspoons doesn’t make sense when you have 5,000 dozen cookies to bake.
Making such a quantity of cookies required a new way of measuring and mixing. Linda Braulick and her husband Lester go back to the very first years of the event. As the order volume jumped from dozens to hundreds of dozens to thousands of dozens, Linda is credited with one of the innovations that has sustained the cooking crew – converting all the cup-sized recipes to ingredient weight.
“Most of these recipes if I took them home I’d have no idea how to make them,” Linda says. “I’m following a list that’ll say ’10 pounds of butter, 15 pounds of flour, 8 pounds of sugar’. Who knows what that is in cups anymore.”
They take orders by mail, email and lately through a web page on the church web site with a downloadable order form.
“I think that’s about my favorite time, when the orders start coming in,” Carol says. “That’s when it gets really real and we know it’s just around the corner.”
When the time comes to put the work in, they have no problem pulling in volunteers, Joyce says, “It’s become a social event. Most people come in and get put right to work doing something they’re comfortable with, or maybe learning a new task. They set themselves at the decorating table and reconnect with old friends, or grab an apron and get to work in the kitchen.”
Small crews form naturally and crank out a copious volume of various cookies. Like a shift change at a factory, they switch cookies and the whole crew alters their motions to pump out the next recipe.
Linda measures out and packs all the ingredients for each cookie variety onto carts, measured out into 30- or 50-pound packs. A heavily tattooed man in his 50s combines these using a floor stand mixer, then delivers the batters to the baking crew.
The baking crew shapes, bakes, scrapes and cools, before handing them off to decorating. This crew takes many forms, from one person drizzling cherry icing to a dozen people hand-decorating sugar cookies with icing and sprinkles. Then, all the confections move on to packing.
A constant hum of conversation, thrum of a fan, whir of the blender and “thump-thump-thump!” of the hand-cranked cookie portioner mechanism makes for an industrial sounding operation in the gymnasium of the St. John’s basement.
On a Tuesday morning, veteran cookie makers are setting down to work their tasks. Lester was pulled in from the dairy farm 29 years ago when an injury sidelined him from farm work. Linda dragged him to the cookie bake, and he’s been a fixture ever since. He knows far more about baking Christmas cookies than a dairy farmer ought to, he says. According to Linda, he looks forward to it like a kid does Christmas day.
If working together with a group towards a shared goal of spreading joy is something you might enjoy, feel free to drop in next year and lend a hand. “We were here already Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and here we are Tuesday and we’ll be here until Sunday again,” Carol says.
Joyce adds that even with ten days and all the helping hands, it comes down to the wire each year. “We’re not sure how we make it but somehow, though, through a lot of prayers, we get through.”
“I’m just very proud that we’ve been able to provide for our students here in the past, and now the New Ulm Area Catholic Schools,” Carol says. “People love it every year. We’re just amazed it’s lasted 30 years.”