It had been exactly 892 days since Mrs. Ann Gardiner Stewart baked The Cookies and the 15 residents of Suter’s Lane were beginning to worry.
“Do you smell vanilla?” Patricia De Leon asked Bill Tupper, slightly breathless as she raced out her front door. Mascara wand still in hand, evening gown trailing behind her, she turned her nose up toward Ann Gardiner Stewart’s townhouse.
Bill, a squat gentleman who had long ago served as ambassador to the UK, set down his watering can, turned toward the townhouse that sat across the cul-de-sac from his own and sniffed.
“Nope,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’ve lived across from Ann for almost 40 years now. I know The Cookies when I smell them.” Bill spoke in a clipped and professional manner, but his tone changed as he said “The Cookies.” Like all the other neighbors, he caressed the words in a near reverential tone. He and Patricia gazed at Ann’s townhouse, as if willing The Cookies to appear.
Then Bill turned back to his mums.
“Now get on,” he said to Patricia. “Isn’t your fancy award ceremony tonight?”
Patricia sighed, her mind more on The Cookies than her Golden Page Literary Award.
The next day, Noreen Mina and her wife Jin, both cellists with the National Symphony Orchestra, were talking to George Grant, a retired U.S. senator.
“We’ve heard about The Cookies,” Noreen said, lingering over the words. “But she hasn’t made them since we moved here. When do you think she’ll make them again?”
“No one knows,” George said. “I’ve lived here for 7 years and have only had them three times. I even came home early from a vote once just to get one. It’s an experience you never forget.”
Noreen and Jin sighed.
Later that same day, Dr. Emily Schafer banged the heavy knocker on Pierre Guerard’s door.
“But you’re a Michelin star chef! Surely you can figure out the recipe,” she demanded.
“I have tried. I cannot.”
Over the course of that week, the chatter swelled until the neighbors could talk of nothing else.
That’s when retired CIA Director Cliff MacLeod called an emergency meeting.
They gathered on Monday night after Ann had returned from her monthly Board meeting for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The neighbors peeked out their windows, watching for Ann to turn off her second story parlor light and turn on her third story bedroom light. As pre-arranged, they then scurried from their homes to Cliff’s.
“People!” Cliff slammed his cane onto the coffee table with a crack that muted the jabbering. He then swung the cane against a white board bearing the block numbers: “892.”
“Two years and 162 days,” he said. “There’s no time to waste.”
Jin raise her hand ever so slightly.
“Excuse me,” she said in a little voice. “Has anyone ever actually asked Ann to make The Cookies?”
A mix of snorts and giggles erupted. Cliff handed Jin a slim spiral-bound packet.
“In there,” he said gesturing to the volume, “you’ll find a dossier on everything we know about Ann and The Cookies. You’ll see that she was asked to make them in ’92, which resulted in the longest draught we’ve had to date.”
“Now,” he turned his attention back to the group, erased the 892 and began writing. “Our goals. First: Get Ann to make The Cookies. Second: Reverse engineer the recipe. Simple, straightforward,” he said, gazing at the board. “But so damn elusive.”
He turned back to the neighbors who were all staring at him, some already making notes.
“Let’s review our past efforts to avoid repeating errors. First goal. As we’ve already addressed, asking directly has not worked.” He wrote “asking directly” under the “NO” column. “Celebrations? Birthdays, graduations, weddings, good-byes, holidays?”
Everyone shook their head, murmuring.
More head-shaking as the neighbors remembered the debacle of the Georgetown Great Cookie Bake-off they’d organized in 1995, hoping to entice Ann into baking. Instead, she’d traveled to Israel for the summer and worked on a kibbutz.
“No,” moaned Pierre Guerard. “One hundred thousand dollars. I offered her one hundred thousand dollars for that recipe. She just chuckled, patted my arm and said I was ‘a delightful young man.’”
“Let’s look at the times she has made The Cookies. Everyone turn to page 13,” ordered Cliff. The residents opened their packets, some battered and dog-eared, some covered with notes and red arrows. The studied the carefully documented dates and circumstances of each appearance of The Cookies but found no pattern.
“Can we bring in a psychologist again?” asked Patricia De Leon. “Now that we have more info, a psychologist would have more luck finding a pattern.”
“No, no, no,” Cliff said, slapping the coffee table. “New ideas, people. New ideas.”
Jin inched her hand up again.
“How about a cookie exchange? We hosted one back in San Fran. Everyone came out.”
Former Senator George Grant scoffed.
“Nice idea, ladies, but that will never work.”
“Now wait a minute,” Cliff said. “You may have something there, Jin. It’s different. Bill, you’ve known Ann the longest. What do you think?”
Bill dunked his tea bag as he thought.
“She likes the unexpected,” he said slowly. “It’s not a tradition we see around here.” He shrugged. “It’s just odd enough that it might spark her curiosity. If she comes, she’ll definitely bring The Cookies. We know she doesn’t bake anything else. It’s our best chance.”
“Ok!” Cliff said bringing his cane to the floor with a satisfied thump. “Noreen and Jin will host. Next week. Have invitations out by tomorrow. Next: we have to figure out that recipe. How the devil do we do that?”
“Impossible,” said Pierre, head in his hands.
Cliff poked him with the cane.
“The detective was a complete failure,” said Patricia. She turned to Jin and Noreen. “The last time she made them, we hired a private detective to go through her trash and search her kitchen. But he came up with nothing. Butter, flour, baking powder, vanilla – nothing extraordinary.”
“We’ve even had him follow her to the store a few times when we think she might be getting close,” said Dr. Schaefer. “But we’ve never gotten it right.”
“Why can’t you figure it out? You’re one of the best chefs in the U.S.” Noreen asked Pierre.
He moaned, head still in hands. Bill patted him on the back and said to Noreen, “You’ll understand when you try them. The Cookies are gloriously chewy, yet melty. There’s butter and vanilla of course, but there is something else going on that no one can replicate. An ingredient – or ingredients – that touch soul with a depth and complexity none of us have ever experienced.”
“Cardamom,” came Pierre’s muffled, yet still plaintive, cry.
“Pierre thought he had it with a very unique and exquisite cardamom imported from India and the faintest wisp of Mexican chocolate several years ago, but no. Something was still missing,” Bill said. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “It crushed him.”
“Does Ann have any idea how much she is torturing all of us?” asked Jin.
“No way,” said Patricia. “Don’t you see how careful we all are? There’s a fine line – we think. And we don’t know where it is. Make sure she knows we like them so she keeps making them. But not too much – or else she might stop altogether.”
“Enough!” Cliff whacked the white board again. “Ideas!”
Noreen whispered to Jin, who nodded.
“Well, we know the new sommelier at The Four Seasons, Maxwell Gladstein. He’s new in town, doesn’t know that many people. He’s won awards, he has an incredibly refined palate.” Noreen shrugged and glanced around the room. “He’s trained in wine, but maybe he could taste something in The Cookies that Pierre couldn’t identify.”
Pierre, head still in his hands, whimpered.
The others looked at each other, nodding, and Cliff thumped his cane on the floor.
“Agreed! Invite this man, but don’t tell him why. We don’t want him spilling the beans to Ann.”
The gas lamps along Suter’s Lane flickered and glowed as the first guests rang the bell at Noreen and Jin’s townhouse the following Friday evening. The neighbors were murmuring amongst themselves as they sipped their wine and admired the platters of cookies displayed on the dining room table. But they all jerked their heads toward the door at each ring of the bell and hovered by the windows, waiting for Ann.
“She’s coming! She’s coming!” squealed Patricia, lifting the brocade curtain just enough to see. “And she has a platter.”
Everyone congregated by the door, trying to look casual, but welcoming Ann in before she could even ring the bell.
“Oh my,” she said in a rich voice, which always seemed to be masking a chuckle. “What a glorious welcome. How lovely to see you all.”
Eager hands jostled to take the covered Chippendale tray from her while Noreen helped remove her wrap. Ann stood tall and erect even at her considerable age. She moved gracefully in delicate heels. Her thick snow white hair always looked effortlessly - yet somehow perfectly - coiffed, even if she was just stepping outside to pick up her New York Times and Washington Post. It was her eyes though that still drew people to her, just like they had in her younger days. A sparkling blue, they could twinkle and crinkle as they most often did, or turn suddenly to impenetrable ice, which few people – none of the neighbors – had seen.
But the residents of Suter’s Lane weren’t interested in Ann’s eyes that night. They gathered around the platter, holding their collective breath as George lifted the cover. There lay 24 perfectly ordinary pale yellow glistening discs that emitted such a rich aroma, the neighbors nearly swooned. At last. The Cookies.
Jin laid the platter with great tenderness in the center of the table as the others watched in reverential silence.
Ann, meanwhile, was gliding from platter to platter making comments on each serving. “Oh, Pierre, you’ve outdone yourself!” “Patricia, darling, what extraordinary designs.” “Senator – and Mrs. Grant – those cookies are exquisite jewels.”
She was still examining the trays when someone rapped loudly on the door. She glanced at the group which was still hovering around The Cookies and didn’t appear to hear.
Ann opened the door to see a handsome, yet disheveled, man of about 30 about to pound again as he balanced a tray of elegant snowflake sugar cookies in one hand and a flask in the other.
“Well hello there!” Ann said. “You must be a friend of Noreen’s. Come in, come in. And let me take that tray from you.”
The young man threw his arms around her, grabbing her in a bear hug.
“You’re the nicest lady I’ve ever met,” he said.
Ann wrinkled her nose slightly in an unobtrusive sniff and chuckled to herself.
“My good fellow, you must have been out celebrating already. Come along and let’s get you some coffee so you can enjoy the party. What’s your name?”
The young man collapsed onto the foyer bench, head in hands.
“Max. My wife left me,” he wailed.
Ann sat next to him.
“Well that’s just rubbish,” she said. “And so close to the holidays. Did you make these cookies, Max?”
“What cookies? Oh those …. Yeah.”
Ann peered at him more closely.
“You look familiar, Max. Where -- Ah, yes,” she smiled and laughed to herself. “You’re the new sommelier at The Four Seasons! Quite a profile the Post did on you. An impressive background indeed for such a young man. You, my friend, have nothing to worry about. Either your wife will come back or you’ll find someone new. Now, come escort me to the parlor and meet the others.”
Max stood precariously and allowed himself to be led by Ann, who linked her arm through his.
“Look who I found at the front door,” she said to the neighbors. “This is Maxwell Gladstein. He’s the new sommelier at the Four Seasons.” Noreen grabbed Max by the arm and gave him a peck on the cheek, but pulled back almost immediately, frowning as she smelled the alcohol.
“Max has had a difficult day,” Ann said in a low voice. “Would you bring him some coffee?” As Noreen hurried off, Ann picked up her tray of The Cookies and turned to Max.
“Here, young man. These will set you straight.” The neighbors looked on in horror as Max ate one cookie in two quite bites. And then grabbed another. And another. He started to smile.
“These are GOOD!” he slurred.
“What do you taste?” Jin asked hopefully.
“I don’t know,” Max said. “But damn, lady, these are AMAZING!” he said, turning to Ann.
Bill pushed a platter of pinwheels in front of him.
“Here, son, have these,” he said. Max grabbed a pinwheel but immediately turned back to The Cookies. The shock on the faces of the neighbors – even gentle Bill – turned to scowls as they moved en masse toward Max.
“Get him out of here,” said George, grabbing one arm as Pierre grabbed the other.
“Who shows up at a cookie exchange drunk?” asked Dr. Schaefer.
“We will destroy you, Maxwell Gladstein,” threatened Patricia. “You’re not going to hold that Four Seasons job much longer.”
“What’d I do?” he slurred, looking at the angry faces.
Ann grabbed a bouquet of sleigh bells adorning the doorway and shook them until all eyes were on her.
“This has gone entirely too far, my dear friends. Look at yourselves. You’re about to throw a broken young man – a prize-winning sommelier no less – out into the night over what? Cookies? For heaven’s sake.”
“But they’re THE Cookies,” Dr. Schaefer faltered.
“THE Cookies, THE Cookies,” Ann mimicked, shaking her head with a smile. “Now, really. It’s all been good fun – the detective, the garbage search, the gossip, the intrigue, the psychologist, the window washer. But – “
“What? You knew?” Bill asked. At the same time Cliff said, “We never sent a window washer.”
Ann raised her eyebrows. “You didn’t? I thought surely the window washer last summer was taking pictures of my kitchen. Well, perhaps you should have. And yes,” she said, turning to Bill. “Of course I knew. You’re a clumsy group of spies. Really, Cliff – no wonder Castro got away.”
She took a sip of wine. “The sommelier was a nice touch, very creative.”
“But that time in ’92 when we asked you to make The Cookies – and then you didn’t for three years. Was that intentional?” asked Dr. Schaefer.
Ann cocked her head, thinking.
“I’m sorry but I don’t recall that. Dear me, three years? My, how time flies. I was traveling so much in the early 90s – that’s when I was working with the UNHCR. I suppose cookies had fallen on my priority list.”
“I’m still not understanding,” said Cliff. “We were really that obvious?”
Ann’s blue eyes began twinkling. “Well, don’t be too hard on yourselves. I suppose the time has come to reveal all. My friends, I was an OSS agent during the World War II. I was only 18, but I was a damn fine agent – one of the best.”
The group fell silent, trying to absorb this revelation.
“That means you’re – “ Patricia touched her fingers, trying to figure out Ann’s age.
“Yes, yes, I’m quite old,” she said, lifting her glass for a toast.
“You all look so morose. At a cookie party! Now, raise your glasses to fine wine, amateur bakers and good friends.”
“Will you make The Cookies again?” ventured Noreen.
“Oh, yes, certainly. On New Years Day, I will make plenty for all of you. It will be a Farewell Fete to The Cookies, as you call them.”
The group gasped.
“Yes, my friends. It’s been a good run but it’s time to retire The Cookie.” Ann waved off the protests.
“Will you at least give us the recipe? Or a hint?” asked Pierre.
“Heavens no! Then the secret recipe wouldn’t be a secret, would it?” said Ann. “But, as you’ve so kindly pointed out, I am well on in years and it won’t be long until I go on to my Great Reward. But in my will, I have left the recipe. For one of you. The one, who I believe, can best keep it a secret. Now, we drink!”
The neighbors of Suters Lane raised their glasses and toasted. The party lasted well into the night with goodwill and holiday cheer fueled by sugar and alcohol. But behind the smiles and laughter, the neighbors’ gazes slid from one another, suspicions formed and plans were laid as each person pondered that elusive recipe tucked away in The Last Will and Testament of Mrs. Ann Gardiner Stewart.
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I smiled the whole way through reading this! I say this almost every time I comment on one of your stories, but I love your take on the prompt. It's so fun because we've all had some version of "The Cookie" and know someone who makes it, and I can easily imagine something like this really happening. I think my favorite part is the job descriptions of all the neighbors. All these important and brilliant people getting thrown off by a secret cookie recipe? Hilarious. I read your comment about it being a draft, and remember, you can always ...
Thank you so much, Natalie! Such great insights and feedback that will really help me craft a story that might fall into place at some point. Your absolutely right that it felt rushed - because I was rushing! I had a self-imposed deadline of 4:45 pm on Thursday because I had a paper I had to finish for school on Thursday night. So I had one eye on clock and one eye on word count. The minutes kept ticking down while the word count kept ticking up. In the end, it was over 2800 words. I would like to linger more over the party and Ann's r...
Totally understandable! And it's still a fantastic story as-is. I think that's a great idea to keep working on it beyond this contest. I can imagine it as a standalone or even as part of a story collection about this neighborhood and all of the people who live in it.
Author's Note: This is the draftiest draft I've submitted yet. It wasn't quite coming into focus in that satisfying way where everything clicks neatly together. I think if I had another week to work on it, I could tighten it up and work out the holes...but for now, a deadline's a deadline.
This story was deliciously good! I want one of those cookies. What you've done with story was just fantastic. I loved the characters, and I had no idea where it was going. There are several great lines in this story, but my favorite is: "An ingredient – or ingredients – that touch soul with a depth and complexity none of us have ever experienced." This was so good it could be poetry. I loved it. I also thought it was funny that everyone plotted to get the secret recipe. They even had a detailed book about it. I read in one of the comme...
Thanks! I loved writing this story - all the silly characters and the ridiculous plot. Brad helped with the plot in this one. Having everyone trying to guess the recipe and bringing in the sommelier was actually his idea (he is much more creative than I am when it comes to ideas)....but once I got it in my head, I was able to roll with it pretty easily.
That's really amazing. I think it's so cool that Brad was able to help you with this story. I think it turned out really good. I'm glad you wrote this story because I really enjoyed it :)
I don't believe you for one second that's the draftiest draft or whatever! Or maybe you did find time to do some editing in the end... I loved all the names in the story. It would make my head spin trying to keep up with so many, and yet you managed to do it very well. And they fit perfectly with the characters they portrayed - the posh cul-de-sac neighbors with their first world problem of not being able to find out the recipe for some cookies 😂 Hilarious!
Thank you, Bianka! I think it felt very drafty to me because I was rushing so much toward the end. Usually, I write pretty slowly. Write, ponder, erase, write, ponder some more, erase, and so on. This was write, look at clock, look at word count, write some more, look at clock, look at word count and keep writing. Probably a good exercise for me, but out of my comfort zone. Thanks so much for your kind words - I did have fun thinking so outlandishly on this :)
In my opinion it worked. Try replicating the process again some day, and we'll test the theory ;)
I'm so glad you posted this, Kristen! It's hilarious! The characters are timeless - it has the feel of an old-timey Victorian Christmas story while also being very much up to date. I love that the neighbors are so "important" and yet they are completely obsessed with a cookie recipe. The twist at the end was fantastic (a little nod to Julia Child perhaps?) and I loved how the neighbors were undaunted in their quest for the recipe. Fun, fun, fun read!!
Thank you, Julie! I kept giggling as I wrote it and the plot got more outlandish. I mentioned in my comment to K. Antonio that this was all on my summer of 1995 and '96. Those years I housesat for a woman in Georgetown on Suter's Lane. It was a little cul-de-sac off P St near Wisconsin Ave with these very stately and very expensive townhomes. I didn't know the neighbors, but the woman I housesat for, Mary Gardiner Jones, was a riot. She was in her 80s, traveling all over the world. She had been the first woman accepted to Yale Law Sch...
I LAUGHED SO HARD AT THIS STORY! I started reading it very slowly not expecting such a good laugh. I love how the story is comical, unconventional and just so adorable. I thought it was great how everyone in the neighborhood was well off and had some sort of societal status. I loved the plot twist in the end, she being a spy. I loved how the cookies were "The Cookies" and how Max was given purpose having the drunk brokenhearted munchies. The spirit of this story just captures the vibe of the prompt completely. The pace of the sto...
Thank you so much! I'm so glad it gave you a good laugh! I was kind of giggling as I went along and imagined more and more outlandish aspects. Back in the summers of 1995 and 96, I housesat for an elderly woman on Suter's Lane in Georgetown. As I described, it was a little cul-de-sac off P Street, right near Wisconsin Avenue. It was full of the stately brick townhouses and while I didn't know the neighbors, i knew they were a wealthy accomplished bunch. The woman I housesat for was an alum from my college named Mary Gardiner Jones - sh...
This was a really nice story, well done! I really liked the set-up with the whole town trying to figure out the recipe. It gave me a distinct Gilmore Girls/Stars Hollow impression, the kind of over-the-top thing that would go on there. A good fun read, thank you! Very different from my own take on that prompt.
Thanks so much! And so sorry for the late reply. I've been slammed with schoolwork all weekend. I've never seen the Gilmore Girls or Stars Hollow, but I'm curious now! Yes, it was totally over the top. When something involves baking, for some reason my mind goes immediately to silliness and bright colors. I don't know if you remember the prompt from October - something about a new line of autumn-themed coffee drinks. I started (never finished, never posted) a story for that....and it was completely ridiculous, but fun. Thanks!
I can't find a good clip on YouTube of a star's hollow meeting clip sadly, none of them are a good example but if you ever get into the series you'll see. It was a fun stroy! I cannot remember the prompt sadly, shame you didn't submit it though!
I've never met an Ann without an E that I've aspired to be, until now. This was lots of fun. U love how everyone in the neighborhood was so accomplished. I'm glad you did this prompt. It made me smile when I first read it. I thought, that's exactly my style of intrigue. Considered some riff on Emma, then got stuck there. But this piece captures the spirit and tone I imagined for this prompt. One tiny typo you have time to fix: The studied the carefully documented dates. They, right?
Thanks so much, Anne! I had lots of fun writing it. Something about cookies and baking inspires silliness and ridiculousness in me. I was slammed with schoolwork this weekend and didn't get to fixing the typo before they approved it. But I've fixed it on the original in case I ever take another stab at it. Thank youuuuu!
Wow, what an absolutely delightful story! Just in time to get us all into the holiday cheer. I love how the cookies are such an elusive thing, and you never really describe what exactly they taste like, because everyone has a different idea of 'amazing'. I love how the neighbours were all speculating about The Cookies, and just waiting for them. I'm glad they got to try them in the end. I could smell cookies the entire time I was reading this. Lovely story, Kristin! I enjoyed every part of it. :)
Thank you so much, Yolanda! Your comments always make my day brighter and help me understand what has worked. There was a very practical reason for not explaining the ingredients or the actual taste - that's because I didn't know (I see this emerging as a pattern in my stories). I'd built up The Cookies so much, that I didn't know what I could say about them to meet the expectation - I'm not much of a baker myself. But maybe one day, if I come across a professional chef, maybe he/she could help me figure out that part so it's not so open...
Haha, honestly the not knowing totally worked out. A lot of the time I don't know half the practical things in my stories either, and I agree, I'm not much of a baker myself either so it's not like I would have known even if you did talk about the ingredients. A new story should be coming out this week, so yay!
Yay!! Can't wait!