Grandmas throw down in Winston-Salem cookie contest

by Brian Clarey

Ginger snaps were but one of the many confectionary delights at Independent Village’s Grandma’s Cookie Contest last week in Winston- Salem. (photo by Brian Clarey)

Independence Village, the retirement community in Winston-Salem, is always full of grandmas, but today there are more than usual. They’ve been here in the dining hall for an hour or more, camped out on rows of chairs across from an L-shaped table with a redchecked tablecloth draped atop it.

Lined up on this table are a score of homemade cookies: snaps, bars, macaroons; spice cookies, sugar cookies, refrigerator cookies, drop cookies; sugar, oatmeal, chocolate, butterscotch, cherry.

It’s enough to make a grandkid go a little crazy, like the little girl running around the room attached to a pink leash. And behind each one is a story.

John Holt, 81, maker of Great-Grandma Holt’s Sugar Cookies, tells his.

“We had 32 head of dairy cows, and we had to milk them by hand every morning,” he says. “We’d get up at 4 a.m. and grab a couple, three of these cookies. We’d dip our tin cup into the warm milk and have that with the cookies.”

After interviewing Holt, I am given a battlefield promotion from mere reporter to cookie judge, and I take my place on the dais with WXII’s Lanie Pope, Winston-Salem Journal Food Editor Michael Hastings and attorney Baily Liipfert. We load up with milk and coffee and water and prepare to rank the 19 types of cookies, all made by loving hands.

Let me tell you something about eating large amounts of homemade cookies: It’s a lot more work than you think it is. Anyone could take down a sleeve of Chips Ahoy, but cookies from grandma’s kitchen do not skimp on richness. All have lots of butter and sugar; most have lots of nuts, chocolate, raisins, coconut or eggs. And sure, eating cookies is a lot of fun, but eating 19 of them while a crew of anxious grannies look on can be… daunting.

All of the cookies are delicious, naturally, but some rise above the others in the judging. Holt’s sugar cookies are incredibly soft and light. Peanut butter bars, submitted by Catherine Ennis, are dense and rich, almost like fudge. Barbara Trussler’s Oatmeal-Butterscotch-Walnut Cookies fared well under judging due to a strong butterscotch presence and crunchy nuts. And Jo Ann Wilhelm’s Make-Believe Macaroons benefited from the addition of mashed potato mix in the batter.

Carol Knapp’s Fresh Forever Cookies, based on sugar, oats, coconut and nuts, were good enough to place third.

“I live with three guys,” she says, “and I have cookies and cakes in the house for them all the time.” The challenge, she says, was deciding which cookie to make for the competition.

The top two finishers incite much debate among the judges. It comes down to a choice between Elizabeth Cook’s true macaroons, wonderfully chewy and sticky affairs with plenty of semi-sweet chocolate, and the Exquisite Bites of Carolyn Ashburn, little cups of phyllo dough filled with chocolate, coconut and nuts.

In the end, the Exquisite Bites take the prize. She’s only been making the recipe, Ashburn says, for four or five years.

“It was actually a pie recipe,” she says, discovered among her mother’s belongings. “I made pie, but it was just too rich. The I found those little shells.”

She says she’s made them for wedding receptions, potluck suppers and baby and bridal showers, but that this is the first time they’ve ever won a prize.

And of course, everybody wins in a cookie contest, especially Independence Village and Hospice and Palliative Care, the beneficiary of funds raised. And I discover that a little bit of black coffee can reverse the effects of grandma-cookie overload.