EAGLE BEND, MINN. — In this central Minnesota town, cookies equal community.
Every Monday, the scent of fresh-baked treats wafts from the Hilltop Regional Kitchen in the old high school here, drawing townspeople eager to take home a dozen.
Made from decades-old family recipes, the cookies are sold in local stores and bingo halls, served at community meetings and dropped into trick-or-treat bags at Halloween.
Baked by an all-female volunteer corps whose average age is 75, the cookies aren't just good — they're doing good.
Money from the cookie sales goes to pay the mileage of volunteer drivers who deliver prepackaged meals to elderly residents in the area — meals that also are prepared in the Hilltop kitchen.
Now in its second decade, the cookie brigade bakes more than 20,000 cookies a year and raises as much as $4,000 annually for the meal-delivery program.
They could probably raise even more. The giant cookies — most popular are chocolate chip, molasses, peanut butter and "monster" — would easily fetch $2 at any Twin Cities coffee shop. But in Eagle Bend, population 520, the cookies go for 50 cents each or $6 a dozen. (The bakers recently, reluctantly, hiked the price for a dozen from $5.)
"They're so good, they sell themselves," said Jan Thorson, one of the bakers.
The bakers, who number around a dozen, are happy to do good for their community. But personally, they just like the chance to get together, have a cup of coffee when the baking is done and chat with their friends.
"It's fun," said Jo Meierding. "You retire, and you're used to working. It's good to get together with people. Some of us live in the country and some in the town, so it gives you a chance to catch up."
The baking started around 2010 when Verna Toenyan, Todd County's aging coordinator, asked the regulars at the local senior center to come up with some ways to raise money. Carol Notch suggested cookies, and the rest is history.
The group "chose cookies we had made at home that we liked," Notch said. Some used recipes passed on from their mothers or even grandmothers. One special cookie — with coconut, vanilla and nuts — came from a recipe donated by Kay Nelson, a beloved local schoolteacher who died last year at age 101.
The recipe for monster cookies, made with oatmeal, calls for one tablespoon of Karo syrup in an industrial-sized batch of dough. Nobody is quite sure what that one tablespoon adds to the mix, but they always add it anyway.
Toenyan, a dynamo who has created a host of innovative senior programs in the region, said she stays out of the kitchen.
"I don't do anything," she said. "I just glory in what these gals are doing."
Linda Sudbeck, a paid employee at the Hilltop kitchen, runs the day-to-day operations, and five-year volunteer baker Sharon Harris likes the way things are organized.
"Everybody has their own job," Harris said. "I don't do mixing. I don't do measuring. I just scoop the dough on the sheet, and then after, we have coffee and cookies."
Some of the volunteers have aged out, but they still show up to hang around with their friends.
"My body decided it was time to stop," said Lorraine Froehlich , 88. Dorothy Rachuy, too: "I got too old," she said. Carrol Peterson also has retired from baking.
"I put a frozen pizza in the oven — does that count?" she said.
Before too long, the bakers will be planning for Christmas, when they make trays of special cookies that have become a holiday tradition in these parts. (Price: $20 for a platter of 36 cookies.)
And the best part of it all, Meierding said: "We have to eat our mistakes."