Mary Tully died almost seven years ago but her annual holiday cookie exchange lives on.
Her family and friends continued the event after Tully died from pancreatic cancer in 2010.
“We could not let that tradition die,” says Tully’s longtime friend Rena Stevenson.
Tully, 46, of Raleigh started the cookie exchange in the 1970s from the most basic of holiday desires: a full, diverse cookie haul without all the baking.
“The whole genesis of it was that she wanted to have a lot of different fresh cookies, but she didn’t want to have to make all the different cookies,” said her son, Chris Tully.
Her second desire was to bring people together from all parts of her life: family, work, church and neighborhood.
Tully was one of the first lactation consultants certified in the United States, helped create the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (later earning the organization’s lifetime achievement award) and served as director of lactation services at the University of North Carolina’s Women’s Hospital. When Mary Tully wasn’t helping moms feed their babies, she liked to host parties.
“I grew up with mom always having people over for one event or other,” her son remembers.
So the Mary Tully annual cookie exchange was born likely around 1976. Her exchanges had many distinctive elements. To start, there were Tully’s own two signature cookies – a three-layered, almond-flavored rainbow cookie and the Italian waffle cookie known as pizelle – that became must-have features of every event. She held the events in the afternoon so parents could bring their children and it wouldn’t be too close to bedtime. “I went to just about every one of them,” Chris Tully says.
She always asked participants to bring 10 dozen homemade cookies, and those who did got to take home 10 dozen of the cookies brought by the other guests. (Guests could bring fewer than 10 dozen, but that meant they took home fewer cookies.) Everyone brought their own empty containers for cookie conveyance, and if anyone wanted to keep the cookies separate in those containers, they had to bring their own plastic bags, which earned them the nickname, “bag ladies.” Many guests also brought copies of their recipes to share. Mulled cider, cheese, crackers and nuts were provided for those who needed an escape from the sugar.
Then there was the ritual of collecting the cookies. Tully divided her guests into two groups. The first group circled the cookie table, picking up a few dozen cookies with no more than six of each kind. When that was done, the second group collected. After each group had their initial go around the table, the pattern continued until all the cookies were gone. Stevenson said Tully discouraged excessive chatting among those circling the cookie table so as not to disturb people’s counting.
Attendance varied over the years. The first year there were only around 15 or so bakers, but “some years we were packed like sardines,” says another longtime friend, Mary Overfield, who starting attending in the 1970s.
The cookie exchange had moved past the 30-year mark when Tully was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2009. The disease moved so fast that she spent a lot of time in the hospital. And that’s where friends visited her often during her last few months. During one visit with Stevenson, Tully asked what would become of her cookie exchange if she died. Stevenson responded, “Oh Mary, don’t worry. We’ve got that covered.” Stevenson hosted it that December.
Tully died surrounded by family on Jan. 20, 2010, on her 42nd wedding anniversary. She was 63.
That December, Stevenson also hosted the first Mary Tully memorial cookie exchange. At that gathering, guests shared their favorite stories about Mary Tully. Since then, various friends and family have hosted the event, including Chris Tully and his dad, Douglas, who has since remarried.
Many of Tully’s cookie exchange rules live on. Kids are still welcome, and rules for rotating the collection of cookies are still in place. And, of course, the rainbow cookies and pizelles are made every year.
“You can’t have the cookie exchange without Mary’s cookies,” Overfield says. “They have to be there.”
Reach Palcher-Silliman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plan your own cookie exchange
According to Robin L. Olson’s book “The Cookie Party Cookbook” (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan, 2010): “There are no absolutes on how to host a cookie exchange. You can throw the party any way that you choose, and customize it so that it fits your needs.” That being said, Olson does suggest you consider the following before hosting your first cookie exchange:
▪ Decide how many people to invite.
▪ Pick the date and time and send invitations four weeks before the party.
▪ Choose what refreshments (in addition to the cookies) that you want to serve.
▪ Consider whether you want to incorporate a theme, play games, arrange a craft activity, offer prizes or otherwise expand the party fun.
▪ Decide how many cookies to ask each guest to bring, how to display the cookies at the party and what rules to implement for swapping cookies.
You will need a pizelle iron to make these cookies; it’s sort of like a waffle iron. To make a chocolate version, add 1/2 cup cocoa powder with the flour. You can also roll them while hot and stuff them with cannoli filling.
1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
Water, if needed
Non-stick baking spray
Beat eggs. Add sugar gradually and beat until smooth.
Add cooled melted butter and vanilla. Beat well.
Sift flour and baking powder and add to mixture.
Add water (if necessary) so dough can be dropped by the spoonful onto a hot pizelle iron. (If you make them thick, you’ll get 5 dozen. If you add water and make them thinner, you’ll get 7 dozen. Thinner cookies will be crispier.)
Before you plug it in, lightly spray the iron with non-stick baking spray. Use a pastry brush to get it into the crevasses. Press on a paper towel to remove as much excess as you can. If you use too much, you’ll have to discard (or eat) the first cookie.
Heat the iron until a drop of water will sizzle or – if yours is so equipped – the light goes out to indicate it has attained the proper temperature. Keep an eye on the light to make sure you don’t try to use the iron before it is hot enough.
Add enough batter to the iron, cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove cookies from pizelle iron and continue cooking until the batter is used up. Dust the cookies with powdered sugar.
Yield: 5 dozen to 7 dozen
8 ounces almond paste
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated white sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 to 8 drops red food coloring
6 to 8 drops green food coloring
1/4 cup seedless red raspberry jam
1/4 cup apricot jam
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
Line the bottoms of three matching 13-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch baking pans (or reuse one pan) with waxed or parchment paper.
Place almond paste in a large mixing bowl; break up with a fork. Cream with butter, sugar and egg yolks until light, fluffy and smooth. Stir in flour. In another mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold into dough, mixing until thoroughly blended.
Divide dough into three portions (about 1-1/3 cups each). Color one portion with red food coloring and one with green; leave the remaining portion uncolored. Spread each portion into the prepared pans.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Invert onto wire racks; remove paper. Place another wire rack on top and turn over. Cool completely.
Place green layer on a large piece of plastic wrap. Spread evenly with raspberry jam. Top with uncolored layer and spread with apricot jam. Top with pink layer. Bring plastic wrap over layers. Slide onto a cookie sheet and set a cutting board or a heavy, flat pan on top to compress layers. Refrigerate overnight.
The next day, melt chocolate in a double boiler. Spread over top layer; allow to harden. With a sharp knife, trim edges. Cut into 1/2-inch strips across the width; then cut each strip into 4 to 5 pieces. Store in airtight containers.
Yield: about 8 dozen