A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

There’s a mid-December chill in the air on Pollock Street, but it’s a New Bern chill rather than, say, a Banner Elk chill, so folks waiting in the line stretching

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

There’s a mid-December chill in the air on Pollock Street, but it’s a New Bern chill rather than, say, a Banner Elk chill, so folks waiting in the line stretching

The Sweetest Stroll

There’s a mid-December chill in the air on Pollock Street, but it’s a New Bern chill rather than, say, a Banner Elk chill, so folks waiting in the line stretching down the next block don’t mind. The mood is jovial, congenial, and, well, Christmas-cheery. They began assembling before 9 a.m. — couples, singles, families with children and babies in strollers, and Rufus, a thigh-high Great Dane wearing a Christmas sweater. Harvey and Susan Smith’s granddaughters called from Maryland to remind their grandparents of the date. “If we don’t bring the cookies, we can’t come for Christmas,” Harvey laughs. The McCray mother and her daughters have been coming since the youngest child was “this tall”; Mrs. McCray goes for the cheese straws. The gentleman behind her has one goal only: “I’m here for the buckeyes.”

“The first time we came,” another patron confesses, “our total was $38.” He laughs. “We had no idea how heavy cookies are.” Yet another, who runs a nearby shop, missed the event last year, and made sure to arrive early this year. A tourist from New Jersey heard about it at the convention center. Abigail Garman, a 17-year-old parishioner at Christ Episcopal Church, right across the street, moves among the assembled, serving coffee.

They’re all waiting for cookies.

The line outside the Cookie Walk seems to move faster with a cup of hot coffee and a good sense of humor. photograph by Baxter Miller

Gingersnaps, frosted Christmas trees, peanut butter, oatmeal lace, chocolate chip. And for Rufus and his ilk, bone-shaped doggie cookies.

Just a few steps away, indoors at the Harrison Center, a dozen volunteers wearing Santa hats and Christmas-themed aprons, jewelry, and sweaters are making ready. A Christmas tree stands in one corner; a piano player tinkles Christmas tunes; laminated price sheets stand at the ready beside scales and calculators on a long row of tables. Sixteen round tables, completely filled with trays of cookies in every color, shape, and any other description, are covered with plastic wrap. If your memories of Sunday school or Scout meetings are fluorescent-lit parish halls where subpar, store-bought sandwich cookies and paper cups of tepid apple juice were the only choices, it’s time to up your game and create new memories. This is Christ Episcopal Church’s annual Christmas Cookie Walk.

The volunteers gather for a prayer, then glance at the clock: a few minutes ’til 10. They don their gay apparel of plastic gloves, remove protective wrapping from the platters, and light centerpiece candles. Places, everyone, and everyone knows their place: After all, this is the 19th year of the Christ Church Cookie Walk.

Lemon bars. Snowflake and teddy bear and stocking shapes decorated with red and green and white icing or sugar sprinkles. Reindeer faces with antlers made of pretzel twists.

Jan Eldred, chair of this year’s walk, surveys the scene that has required months of preparation, dozens of professional and not-quite-professional bakers, and countless pounds of sugar and flour, all of which will disappear in the next three hours. Eldred tilts her head, thinking. “Oh … 8,000 cookies,” she estimates.

The buyers stream in as if guided by radar toward the wall of white boxes — some 600 of them — that reach halfway to the ceiling. Inside each box is a pair of plastic gloves and a sheet of wax paper, because, as everyone knows, you wouldn’t want your chocolate icing to accidentally smear against the peppermint thumbed into the center of a sugar cookie.

Expert tip: Take your time and be very selective. With 8,000 cookies to choose from, it’s easy to buy more than you planned to. photograph by Baxter Miller

• • •

New Bern, a city of 30,000, draws people from around the state and across the country with its beauty and history, its proximity to the water, its golf, and its laid-back feel. And then those people stay. Twenty years ago, Kathleen Meyer moved to New Bern from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and brought the idea of a cookie walk fund-raiser to the Episcopal Church Women of Christ Church. That first December, in 1998, the women set up five tables of cookies for sale in the halls of the church itself. People came, bought, ate, and asked for more. Today, the annual event will raise some $7,000 for church-supported charities, including an after-school program for low-income children, volunteer nurses at the MERCI Clinic, and scholarships at Craven Community College.

Helen Shine was there that first year. Her job was to walk the streets, wearing a sandwich board and telling random sidewalk strollers: “The Cookie Walk is our way of sharing the Christmas spirit, and we’d like to have you come.” Before email was the main form of communication, Shine says, “we signed up and called people to bake. I did bourbon balls.” And she still does.

Meanwhile, buyers meander or mingle or cluster or search for a specialty. For meringue kisses, dipped white chocolate, caramels, mint bars, stars with lemon icing, wreath shapes with green coconut foliage. Even in a room full of cookies, picky eaters abound. “I’m here for the anise cookies,” a woman admits, turning over an otherwise nondescript sand-colored square to point out the tiny seeds of anise, a licorice-flavored herb, sprinkling the cookie’s bottom. Another browser is searching for the distinctive, violet-hued lavender cookies that one gentleman baker makes. While helpers constantly replenish from the kitchen, the hand-picked, prepackaged hostess trays have been claimed. And while any leftovers are sold — snapped up — between church services the following Sunday, “two years ago,” Abigail Garman says, “we sold out of everything in the first two hours, and people were buying bags of crumbs.” Moral: Arrive early, or else that’s the way the cookie … well, you know.

The New Bern High School chorus carols its fa-la-la-la-las. Because “homemade” doesn’t apply only to baked goods, a corner table offers artisan soaps, tree ornaments, knitted scarves, and charming squares called “prayer patches for military pockets,” since many visitors have come to spend time with relatives on active duty at Camp Lejeune in nearby Jacksonville. For them — indeed, for all of us — there are the cookies iced with simple messages of “Peace, Love, Hope.”

Rufus is sniffing around the table with doggie cookies made of peanut butter, honey, whole-wheat flour, olive oil, and oatmeal that a dog-loving parishioner named Jane has contributed for four years now. His hungry human debates between Rice Krispie treats shaped into snowmen, or a mug filled with biscotti. For those along for the ride, or lacking a sweet tooth, the Cookie Corner Café offers navy bean and tomato bisque and chicken noodle soups steaming in old-school Crock-Pots, dished up by a Christ Church couple.

Chex Mix, caramels. Jelly-filled pinch cookies. Pinwheels. Pecans pressed into chocolate. Cookies on sticks like lollipops. White chocolate and macadamia. Plenty of green and red M&Ms. Here in the Harrison Center is the cookie chooser’s version of If We Don’t Have It, You Don’t Need It.

A 300-year-old church. A hundred parishioner bakers. Six hundred boxes. Thousands of cookies for hundreds of buyers in three hours equal thousands of dollars for the community’s benefit. The numbers add up to almost 20 years of this charming Cookie Walk tradition, contemporary yet simple and nostalgic in its humble beginnings. What can’t be weighed or counted, though, is the joy, the cheer, the smiles and hugs and greetings, the goodwill. Because mixed and sifted and shaped and baked in every cookie sold and enjoyed is an ingredient that can’t be measured: Christmas spirit.

This story was published on Nov 27, 2018

Susan Stafford Kelly

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.