For a party that's all about the simple pleasures of sharing your favorite homemade cookies with friends, the old-fashioned cookie swap can be a surprisingly tense affair. Debbie Ybarra learned this the hard way two years ago when, as a cookie-party virgin (as first-timers are known), the 40-year-old stay-at-home mom made the mistake of taking plain-Jane chocolate-chip cookies to an exchange in San Diego. After seeing the elaborately decorated and colorfully frosted treats her friends had made, Ybarra quickly learned one of the unspoken rules of many cookie exchanges: it's not just a party it's a contest. "Rather than trying to get the cookies to taste good, it's always about which one looks the best," she says, adding, "I felt a little insecure."
Cookie exchanges are a century-old tradition in which participants bake dozens of their favorite cookie, then take them to a party where guests trade their cache and wind up with a variety of cookies from everybody else. Although there are no hard numbers on whether cookie parties are becoming more popular, this fall, four new cookbooks came out dedicated to the art of hosting a successful one. There's also a new romance, First Love Cookie Club by Lori Wilde, that uses a small-town cookie swap as the backdrop for a steamy love story, and a new Jack Daniel's ad campaign that includes whiskey-laden recipes and the tagline "This isn't your momma's cookie swap."
While cookie exchanges are not new, the etiquette for attending them has become increasingly elaborate. Robin Olson, who just published The Cookie Party Cookbook and also runs the popular Cookie-Exchange.com website, has 10 firm rules for her parties, including no chocolate-chip cookies and no cookies whose main ingredient is something other than flour. If you burn your cookies and don't have time to make a fresh batch, bakery cookies are an acceptable replacement, but never superprocessed supermarket ones. Other taboos include excessively gooey cookies (they don't travel well) and failing to RSVP. "People need to know that they have to commit," says Olson.
Why so many instructions when the idea is simply to relax with friends and eat some cookies together? In a word: quality. On Allrecipes.com's how-to page for cookie parties, one commenter complained that "a lot of people who attend don't put as much LOVE into their cookies as I do. In fact, some of the cookies taste darn right awful to be honest."
Some attendees, it seems, don't try hard enough while others try too hard. Pat Cremer of San Carlos, Calif., who is getting ready to host her 10th annual cookie party, says that one year "everybody was trying to be fancy and half the cookies were cranberry-coconut. It was awful." To avoid duplicates (or disastrous experiments), Cremer's online invitation suggests 22 kinds of cookies, with links to recipes from sites like JoyofBaking.com, Betty Crocker and Nestlé's Very Best Baking. Guests RSVP by clicking on and thus claiming the recipe they intend to make.
Moochers are the second biggest problem at cookie parties. At a cookie swap hosted by a New York University student group last year, "a lot of people would just grab cookies and go," says club president Charlene Leevongcharoen of Lansdowne, Pa., who adds, "We're not a cookie distributor." For this year's cookie swap, she hopes more people will actually bake for the event instead of "just relying on our club for free treats." Meanwhile, Cremer has cracked down even harder on those who take without giving, by adding this line to her invitations: "Attention scrooges: If you come with nothing, you leave with nothing."