Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, the modest home of Don and Marge Reichardt is transformed into a Christmas cookie factory. For nearly 30 years, the Reichardts have made the holidays a little brighter in their hometown of Watertown, Wis., (pop. 21,598), by baking treats for neighbors and friends and delivering sweet packages of Christmas cheer.
“We always try something new every year,” Marge says, noting that the family baked and decorated 56 kinds of cookies last year. “When we ask people who get our cookies what they want next year, they tell us, ‘We want more cookies and more kinds.’”
Over the years, the Reichardt cookie-baking crew has grown along with their family, as has their list of recipients, which has swelled to more than 60. The 2003 crew, with Don and Marge at the helm, included daughters Sue Pochop and Lea Fischer, daughter-in-law Christine Reichardt, and sister-in-law Marlene West. Five granddaughters, ranging in age from 3 to 13, represent the family’s third generation of cookie elves.
During the month-long process, the family keeps busy most evenings and weekends until Christmas Eve, mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and decorating thousands of cookies. Last year, the Reichardts gave away more than 45 boxes containing about 12 to 15 dozen cookies each. Another 20 to 30 bags, containing three to four dozen treats, went to teachers and co-workers.
Although the Reichardts’ 9-by-10-foot kitchen seems small for the large volume of cookies baked, they have the process down to a science. A black vinyl three-ring binder, containing hundreds of tried-and-true recipes, is pulled from the cupboard. Marge’s Kitchen Aid mixer churns on the countertop next to her double oven. The remaining kitchen counters hold precariously stacked cookie sheets and platters, six to eight deep, waiting to be popped into the oven or filled with decorated cookies.
The 6-foot oval dining room table serves as the cookie-decorating center. With assembly-line precision, members of the Reichardt crew work elbow-to-elbow, using white frosting and colored sugar to give cut-out bells, stars, candy canes, and snowmen a special holiday dazzle. Some younger members of the crew can’t resist their own creations. But the Reichardts have a rule: If you eat more than you decorate, you’re off the cookie crew.
As Christmas draws near, bagging and boxing cookies also requires team effort. A 4-by-8-foot piece of plywood, propped on wooden sawhorses in the unheated garage, becomes the packaging line. “We walk around filling boxes until our fingers are too numb to pick up any more cookies,” Marge says.
The Reichardts admit that their annual undertaking is a little hectic, but they can’t seem to stop themselves from doing it. “She (Marge) buys boxes on sale every year the day after Christmas, and then we have to fill them up the next year,” Don quips.
Their recipients are glad they do. “It just makes the season more meaningful,” says Beth Mueller, whose family has received cookies from the Reichardts for 12 years. “When Don comes to the door, it’s almost like one of those heartwarming Hallmark commercials you’d see on TV that make some people say, ‘Right, like that really happens.’ For us, it does every year.”