The mysterious origin of Chapel Hill’s famous cookies

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Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Chapel Hill's famous sugar cookies.

Honestly, no special Christmas gift jogs my memory from my childhood in the 1950s and 60s (except for the white, princess extension phone I received in the eighth grade for my bedroom, that, I must admit, incredibly aided my blooming teen social life). In fact, I can’t remember any specific gifts.

On the other hand, one special Christmas memory that never fades from that era wasn’t so much a regular gift as a yearly tradition that both my sister Sherry and I treasured pretty much more than any other. It WAS a gift, though, a gift of love from our granny, Clara Elsie Mader Gaston: Central Methodist Church sugar cookies, that she helped make and always shared so many with us.

These sensual cookies were huge, fat and blonde, with a distinct flavor that I’ve never tasted anywhere else. We dipped them in milk or tea to get soft and mushy, which only improved the flavor. Sometimes they had a few sprinkles of colored sugar on top; I remember red and green. Sherry and I could not wait for Granny to arrive with our treats.

Now that she and my mom are both gone, I wish I knew the long history of these cookies, for they are still being mixed, baked and sold by Chapel Hill Church, formed when Central Methodist combined with EUB Church. I wonder, was the idea and the recipe from the 1950s? 60s? 40s perhaps? Maybe even 30s? Was it for fund raising or just holiday cheer and goodwill? Whose recipe was it?

The only thing anyone can point to is that the original recipe called for lard. Later they changed to margarine, and now use real butter.

Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Jerilynn Thorne

For many years starting in the 1980s, Jerilynn Thorne took over the cookie baking campaign, ran it for 20+ years and still today helps out. She became known as the Cookie Lady (or the Cookie Nazi for her strict baking guidelines 🙂. At first, she told me, the money raised went for Roger Williams when he needed a kidney transplant, items to help out in his room during his recovery. After that it created the Scholarship Fund which each year donates to Chapel Hill college students. Now because that fund is self-sustaining, the money may go for missions.

These days, at Christmas only dough is sold, not the baked cookies. According to Denise Straight, one of the four who run the current cookie enterprise, this year 216 bags of dough were mixed. Each bag makes 12 large cookies, or more smaller ones. They also mix and sell a lesser amount of chocolate chip dough, fudge, other Christmas food treats and handmade gifts.

At certain times of the year, the church sells the baked cookies, such as Valentine’s Day, Strawberry Festival and others. The four women who took over for Jerilynn and now continue this almost ancient tradition it seems, also include Marilyn Tenney, Diane Hill and Shirley Tenney.

The other day I bought three bags of dough, and as soon as I baked the cookies and took a bite, I felt a rush of childhood pleasure and connection to my granny. Who doesn’t treasure that?

Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Denise Straight
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Diane Kimble
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
The church sells the dough for $8 a bag.
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Holly Green
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
There’s more than just cookies.
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
Teresa Wiles
Chapel Hill Sugar Cookies
More treats.