Conversation and cookies: Fowler woman continues exchange party traditions

From left, Joan Bott of New Castle, Pa., Sandy Moss and Deb Moss, both of Niles, hang cookie ornaments on a tree at Theresa Kowalczyk’s 12th annual Cookie Exchange Party at Kowalczyk’s home in Fowler. The women donate the tree to someone in need of holiday cheer. Tribune Chronicle photos / Burton Cole

FOWLER — They arrived almost all at once. The ladies knocked snow off their boots, shucked out of heavy coats and padded into the kitchen carrying festive bags bulging with boxes of cookies.

“I just thought it would be fun to have one of these,” host Theresa Kowalczyk said of her 12th annual Cookie Exchange Party, which includes dinner and wine.

“I tried to think of people who like to cook, who like to bake. I tried to think of people who had something in common,” Kowalczyk said. “The group has evolved over the years.”

Her eight guests stacked decorative boxes and bags packed with a dozen cookies each onto the L-shaped kitchen island. Along with Kowalczyk’s cookies, 72 bundles totaling 864 cookies covered the granite countertop. Plus, everyone brought two additional cookies that later would decorate a small tree.

“When people RSVP, I find out what cookie they’re going to make so there will be no duplicates,” Kowalczyk said. “We ask for more like gourmet cookies. We don’t want oatmeal and raisin.”

The party usually averages 10 people. She’s had as many as 12. The number dipped this year when one invitee’s out-of-state daughter gave birth to twins and Grandma needed to be there, and another regular whose recent eye surgery prevented her from bending over her oven.

The ladies retreated to the living room with glasses decorated in snow scenes and caught each other up on family events, hobby tips and regional differences discovered in culinary offerings. Most were in their 50s and 60s. The youngster of the group clocked in at 36.

“I like being with my age group,” Joan Bott of New Castle, Pa., said. Puffy, white snowballs and jingle bells bounced from her Christmas sweater resplendent in embroidered bulbs. “There’s another party I can go to next week and they’re all under 40. These people, we have things in common.”

Becky Alexander of Niles said, “It’s a nice evening to sit, breathe, relax and catch your breath from Christmas. I’m not a big baker. It appeals to me to make eight dozen cookies and leave with eight dozen other cookies I didn’t make.”

“The only time I bake is for here,” Mindy West of Austintown said. “I love to cook.” Baking, not so much.

Deb Moss and Sandy Moss, both of Niles, have attended all 12 of Kowalczyk’s socials.

“Debbie and I, we can’t wait,” Sandy Moss said. “We talk about it all year.”

“My daughter will call when I get home,” Deb Moss said. “She’ll say, ‘What did you get? Can you come over tomorrow?'”

It was the second party for Shirley Brasko of Fowler. “The tradition is a nice thing to do and the social aspect is great. You do cookie exchanges at work to get a variety of cookies. Here, it’s the social aspect.”

“I quit bowling. You know what, bowling, they’re all on their phones anyway,” Kowalczyk said. “They roll their ball and go back to their phones. They lay it down and keep looking at it every few seconds. It’s like watching an infant. Why don’t they develop a personality?”

After conversation, the ladies circled the kitchen island to fill their empty cookie bags with one of each type of box or bag that they didn’t bring. Minutes later, with the counter cleared, Kowalczyk served one of her family’s traditional dinners of sauerbraten — a tender, cut-it-with-a-fork German pot roast marinated for eight to 48 hours in a vinegar and seasonings mixture — and bread dumplings excellent for sopping up thick, brown gravy.

“The bread dumplings are called spotzins, a name given to them in jest by my father,” Kowalczyk said. “Their proper name is semmelknoedel. In restaurants, sauerbraten is usually served with spaetzle, but the Arnolds ate it with ‘spotzins.'”

Baked apple slices completed the menu.

“We’ve been coming here for 12 years and we’ve never had the same thing,” Deb Moss said. “It’s a different meal every year.”

Two green-clothed dining room tables were positioned within view of an 11-foot-tall Christmas tree decked in layers of colorful lights, lace ribbons and snowflakes. Silverware clinked as the nine women quietly chatted and chuckled.

When a cellphone ring interrupted, Kowalczyk quipped, “Are we in a bowling alley?” The phone was dug out of a purse, silenced and dropped back into the bag unanswered. Dinner conversation would not be subverted by chimes younger generations seem to treat as normal activity but older generations tend to consider as downright rude.

“When the kids and grandkids come over to my house for Christmas,” one diner said, “the rule is the phones are put away. When the phones come out, I tell them it’s time for them to go home.”

After dinner dishes were cleared, Kowalczyk set an 18-inch gold garland Christmas tree on the kitchen island, along with ribbons, stickers and squares of cheery giftwrap. The ladies brought out their two additional cookies. Each cookie was sealed in plastic wrap, tucked into an envelope crafted from folding the wrapping paper and hung on the garland tree.

It’s another Theresa’s Cookie Exchange Party tradition, preparing a tree to offer to someone in need of holiday cheer.

“Do you remember when we started this?” Kowalczyk said to party veterans. “When my brother died, we sent a tree like this to my sister-in-law in New Orleans.”

Eighteen cookie ornaments later, Kowalczyk served dessert, cheesecake slathered in blueberries grown on the six blueberry bushes tended by her husband, Joe. Another wine bottle was opened and the gentle flow of stories and laughter continued.

The party generally lasts until the husbands — who were dispatched to their own outings — returned to Fowler to collect their wives. And to sneak a few cookies.

“Some of us later make up plates of cookies to share with friends, business associates and relatives,” Kowalczyk said.

That way, the gift of a relaxing, delicious and sociable evening continues on into Christmas.