Baking for the Troops

I’ve got a feel-good story for you today, something we all could use during one of the toughest holiday seasons in recent memory. Let me tell you about AMA reader Louise Skinner, an economist who lives with her husband and two teenagers in Upper Marlboro, Md.

For nearly three years, Skinner, who describes her age as “old enough to be retired but too young for Social Security,” has been doing something pretty remarkable in her kitchen. Every month, with the help of her 16-year-old daughter (and her husband and son as taste testers), Skinner bakes several dozen cookies and ships them to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. And every month, Skinner sends a little bit of sugar to a place of war and sweetens someone’s day, somewhere far away, even for just a few bites.

For security reasons, the cookies are shipped to known recipients, but Skinner says they are typically distributed on a communal table in military units and shared among interpreters and post-combat comrades, to name a few. Since January, 2006, she has sent 38 different kinds of cookies and continues to build on her collection of recipes from various sources, including the Post’s Food section. She plans to keep baking until everyone she knows is “home for good.”

Below, the notes from our conversation last week, via e-mail.

What inspired you to start this cookie project?
My goddaughter's husband was deployed to Iraq in December, 2005. I offered to send him cookies each month. A friend's son was then deployed in February, 2006, so he was added to the list. The maximum has been three recipients, and right now it's one -- my goddaughter's husband, who’s back in Iraq for a 15-month deployment.

What are the logistics of such an endeavor? Any shipping requirements to consider?
Cookies cannot be bigger than teaspoon size before baking, must not require refrigeration and must be completely cooled before packing. Ingredients must fresh (this can be a real problem with flour, so I buy five-pound bags). There should be no more than a 36-hour window from raw ingredients to an en route package.

Each shipment is a U.S. Postal Service flat-rate priority mail box. This box will hold two deep-dish food storage boxes (the kind that Giant sells for under $3 for three). They fit in the cardboard box with no room to spare. Each food storage box is completely full of cookies -- from 24 to 48 cookies. I pack cookies in twos, flat sides together, in plastic wrap. Since the cookies are shared among members of the receiving unit, everyone can take a wrapped pack of two without feeling like they've taken too many. This also helps keep the cookies fresh and protected against breakage.

How much money do you typically spend per month?
Each boxed shipment of two kinds of cookies and postage averages $25 (about $600 per year for two recipients). I don't skimp on ingredients -- unsalted butter, pecans, non-alcohol vanilla, high-end chocolate chips. (By the way, have you priced ground cloves recently?) The USPS boxes are free (this is a consideration -- also that I don't have to go looking for appropriately sized boxes.

Do you bake solo or with others?
This is a family baking band. I do this with help from my teenaged daughter. My family does my taste testing since I don't eat wheat or milk. I decide what to bake each month, depending on season and other demands on my time. The December installment is peanut butter blossoms and candy cane shortbread, which I have yet to make. I'm considering trying the chocolate mole cookies from the WP Food section last week as one of the January cookies.

Baking for the troops is a long-running tradition in your family. What's the story?
I learned to pack and ship cookies long ago from my mother, who sent cookies to my father who was stationed in Europe during World War II. From 1943 to 1945, he was in England, France, Belgium and Germany. His favorite was a raisin-drop cookie that my mother made by sight not measure. I still have the baking sheet she bought in 1942 at a catering supply house on 7th St NW to bake those cookies. I don't bake on it any more, but it serves as a heat diffuser in the oven.

What has the response been from the recipients -- do they have any favorites or requests?

The recipients like the variety -- they knew there would be sweet surprises in the box.
At the beginning, there was one soldier who liked chocolate chip cookies and another who liked peanut butter cookies. While these two were deployed, the monthly shipment was one box of chocolate chip cookies (varying recipe) and one box of peanut butter cookies (also varying recipe). It was never a repeat of Toll House and standard peanut butter cookies. I've kept records. I know what went when and to whom. I've sent chocolate sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, oatmeal peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter blossoms, blondies, brownies, Clabber Girl Raisin Drop, butter spritz, oatmeal chocolate chip pecan, Scottish shortbread, candy cane shortbread, and the list goes on.

I've taken recipes and removed the filling. I've taken other recipes and not iced them. I still analyze whether I'm going to try a recipe and risk the cost in time and ingredients. So far, I've had no failures, but I do have a few requests for "do not repeat this recipe!"

Louise Skinner has promised to share a family cookie recipe. Stay tuned in the comments section.

FYI: Due to an unprecedented snow storm in Seattle, my flight over the weekend was cancelled and we've been rebooked on a flight that conflicts with today's chat. In its place, I'll take your questions Wednesday in this space, much like the Thanksgiving help desk I did a few weeks ago. So if you've got a burning last-minute question on any of the winter holidays taking place this week and next -- from Hanukah to New Year's Day -- stop by tomorrow with your queries. I'll answer questions hourly until 6 p.m. ET.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 23, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Baking
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what a great story - and the bit about her mom baking for her dad brought tears to my eyes

Posted by: alisoncsmith | December 26, 2008 12:01 PM

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