Vickroy: Aunt Lucy’s annual cookie bake a ‘family’ tradition
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy December 2, 2013 6:46PM
Updated: January 4, 2014 6:24AM
Inside Lucy Czarnecki’s Chicago Heights bungalow, love bakes to perfection.
Eleven-year-olds scoop flour. Teenagers run mix masters. And lined up at the sink are three kindergartners, ready to begin dishwashing detail.
It is “Aunt Lucy’s” annual holiday cookie bake, a tradition that began way back around the time Perry Como released “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the mood couldn’t be more festive.
Sisters Gabby and Tina Rotondi look forward to the gingerbread sweets, while big sisters Ava and Hailey prefer the sugar cookies.
“I like to bake them because I like to eat them,” Hailey Rotondi, 12, said.
The bakers come from Orland Park and Homewood, Tinley Park and St. John, Ind. The Rotondi girls came all the way from Dyer, Ind., while Alex DeSandre, 6, lives just up the street.
They all have one thing in common: “Aunt Lucy” is their second mom.
Czarnecki used to run a day care out of her home. Though today the 71-year-old baby-sits on an as-needed basis, over the decades she has cared for dozens of other people’s children.
“I always say I have given birth to two boys but I have helped raise close to 200 children,” she said.
An integral part of that child-care experience has been the annual holiday cookie bake, further proof that the best memories are made of experiences, not things.
Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, some 20 to 30 of the children who are still local, most of them girls, come back for a daylong reunion spent sifting flour and kneading dough.
“It’s incredible what Aunt Lucy does,” said Pam Arroyo, mother of 5-year-old Angelina Arroyo. The Orland Park youngster was cared for by Czarnecki when she was 2 and 3.
Arroyo stopped by to drop off Little Caesars pizzas for the crew.
“(Lucy) has such a great relationship with the kids. She is not just a baby sitter. This is their second home,” Arroyo said. “The fact that all these kids want to come back here every year says a lot about her.
“And what better way to connect than through baking,” she said.
It’s hard to know exactly when cookies became an integral part of the holiday season but the website foodtimeline.org dates the tradition back to medieval Europe.
According to the site, we have the Dutch to thank for giving us shaped cookies, the English for a variety of sugar cookies and the Germans for gingerbread. When exactly holiday baking became a family event is not documented, although the concept of holiday cookie swaps began surfacing during World War I. By the 1960s, the notion of trading cookies during the holidays had become popular.
Czarnecki’s annual bake-off began as a weeklong event.
“The kids would figure out the recipes and how to double them. Then we went shopping for the ingredients. Finally we baked up a storm,” she said. “I made it a learning experience.”
Though the children grew up and out of their day-care needs, they’d still call her every holiday season and ask, “ ‘Aunt Lucy, when are you going to bake cookies? Can I come by and help?’ ” she said.
So now she sends out invitations and makes a list of those expected to participate.
“It takes a lot of organization,” she said. “But it’s fun.”
The long Thanksgiving weekend, when many of her former “babies” are home from college, seems to fit most schedules. So while other families are gearing up for the turkey feast, Czarnecki and her husband, Lee, are loading up on ingredients and transforming their kitchen, living room and basement into a cookie factory.
Chairs are removed from the kitchen so the bakers can stand around the prime work station. In the living room, a long banquet table holds bags of flour, chocolate chips, nuts and all kinds of bowls, rolling pins and measuring cups. Underneath is a line of pizzelle makers.
Yes, this operation gets fancy.
Downstairs, Lee Czarnecki runs the cooling and packaging station. Fresh-baked cookies are lined up on folding tables. Take-home containers are stacked in the corner.
Work typically begins at 9 a.m. and continues until well after dark. Each participant leaves with several dozen cookies.
The bakers make five kinds of cookies, churning out some 2,000 treats.
Czarnecki admits the tradition is a lot of work and can get expensive. But recently a friend from church who learned about the yearly bake-a-thon began making an annual donation to the cause. And on this day, the father of one of the participants also kicked in some cash.
“They both said it is a very important tradition,” Czarnecki said.
Today, Czarnecki said, “Many of my kids are all over the U.S.”
They hail from Utah and California, Colorado and Florida. The oldest are in their 40s.
“They send me pictures over the computer and I put them on my refrigerator,” she said. “They invite me to their weddings and, of course, I can’t always go. But I always send a gift.”
Many of them send holiday greetings in which they ask how the cookie bake went, she said.
These days, Czarnecki baby-sits only on request. She devotes more time to her two “other” favorite pastimes: quilting, and crafting pen and ink drawings.
But for a few days during the holiday season, it is just like old times, with youngsters chatting and laughing and helping each other around the kitchen table.
“They’re all ages, all nationalities, all different personalities,” Czarnecki said. “I am blessed with this very special extended family.”
Baking up a storm this holiday? Send us photos of your family’s holiday cookie bake and we may use them in an upcoming feature. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.