Rick Brimacomb comes from a long line of serious Christmas cookie bakers. The St. Louis Park venture capitalist remembers his mother leading an annual cookie-making operation that spanned two weekends. "Weekend one was spent baking 12 dozen cookies," he recalled, "and weekend two was spent decorating them."
The final product was traded at cookie exchanges, displayed on family party trays and donated as treats for post-service church gatherings.
"The frosted cookie tradition started with my great-grandmother, Nell Daigneau, in the 1930s," Brimacomb, 55, recalled. After his mother's death and his divorce, Brimacomb didn't want to lose touch with the tradition. He wondered how to reconnect with those cookies in a way that wouldn't require the massive culinary undertaking of his youth.
That's when he hit upon the idea of buying plain baked cookies from Mel-O-Glaze bakery in south Minneapolis. In 2005, he began bringing home a few boxes, then decorated them with his children: Samuel, Eli, Olivia and Victoria. The bakery-buying shortcut allowed him to fast-forward to the part of the process kids like best — slathering cookies with a rainbow of decorations, then tucking into them as soon as possible. His children loved it.
Word spread. Soon, requests came in from extended family, friends, business colleagues and even acquaintances who were hosting foreign exchange students and wanted to attend a "typically American" holiday event. They asked if they could be invited to raise their frosting spatulas and shake their sprinkle canisters alongside the Brimacomb family.
As his annual cookie order at the bakery increased from four dozen to 15 dozen, Mel-O-Glaze management suggested moving the event to its on-site commercial kitchen. The bakery provides baked cookies and space; Brimacomb brings decorations and six batches of frosting made with a recipe from a family heirloom, the 1965 edition of Betty Crocker's Boys and Girls Cookbook.
"It's the recipe my grandmother, Margaret Bulger, used," he said.
On a Sunday in mid-December, everyone gathers around the tall bakery tables and starts creating. Kids and adults sneak a few (or several) bites, leaving multicolored smears on faces and aprons. Frosting and sprinkles get everywhere. And because whatever happens in this family is viewed as a scorekeeping opportunity, there is fierce competition for "best cookie," determined by a rafter-raising voice vote. The family still talks about past winners, which were decorated like the Grinch, Snoopy, storks carrying babies, sunsets, alligators, pickles, Vikings players and even SpongeBob.
"We all rediscover the magic of Christmas that day," Brimacomb said. "It's one of our major family events, and we build our schedule around it."
Ben Van Thorre, Brimacomb's cousin, is a regular cookie-party attendee with his daughters, Estelle, 9, LuLu, 5, and Ilee, 4. "Every year when we were growing up, we used to bake cookies at Rick's family's house," he said.
"This new event is a great tribute to the giving spirit of his mother and father, Peggi and Dick Brimacomb. They always made sure the holidays were fun and full of love."
Brimacomb's daughter, Olivia, who is studying in Spain this semester, sent a wistful e-mail recollection that perhaps could come only from someone so far from home:
"Our cookie decorating party is one of the reasons this is my favorite time of year," she wrote. "There's something special about everyone being all together in the same room, probably because it happens so rarely these days."
In finding a way to continue a cherished tradition by skipping directly to the fun part, Brimacomb has created a holiday gathering that comes with none of the guilt-laden hand-wringing that hovers like a haze over so many households this time of year. Yes, we make memories around food, but we often forget about the exhausted, flour-dusted cook who's still cleaning up the kitchen after the memory-making is over. Brimacomb's relatives had the motivation, time and energy to deploy Operation Cookie every year. He's created a Christmas Cookie 2.0 event that fits his family where they are now.
As he looks to the future, he said he hopes to join grandchildren around that decorating table someday. "We have our time at the cabin in the summer and our cookie party in the winter," he said. "It's kind of a bookend for the year."
For now, the ancestral Brimacomb matriarchy can rest easy, as the torch of the family Christmas cookie tradition has been taken up by a devoted — and clever — dad.
Julie Kendrick, who has never met a Christmas cookie she didn't like, is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.