'Cookie Lady' Gave in Big Batches

By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 8, 2009

In 1990, Fanchon O'Donoghue spent 32 days at her Bethany Beach, Del., condominium, virtually alone, sewing more than 1,000 polar fleece booties for her son's Alaskan dog sled race.

Fifty-four yards of fleece and more than 100 yards of Velcro later, she had sewn enough booties to protect the paws of 17 huskies for their 1,150 mile-plus trek through the icy tundra.

A decade later, she would sew hundreds of blankets for Project Linus, an organization that provides new blankets for children who are seriously ill.

And her five children said they have not forgotten her yearly vegetable soup experiment where she would strive to increase the number, and variety, of vegetables in her soup. At one point, she was able to cram more than 50 different vegetables into the stock.

But what Mrs. O'Donoghue may be most remembered for was her enthusiasm for, and slight obsession with, baking several thousand cookies over the course of several weeks each year. Think of it as an annual Christmas cookie bake-a-thon, which earned her the moniker "Cookie Lady."

It all started in 1980, a year after her husband, Patrick, died at 49 after a stroke. Over the next 20 years, Mrs. O'Donoghue, 77, who died Jan. 24 at her home in Bethesda of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, expanded her low-key hobby of making Christmas cookies for close friends and family into a volume operation. From 1987 to 1999, her meticulous notes indicate that she baked more than 14,265 dozen batches, or 171,180 cookies.

In 1991, she baked 1,248 dozen. There were 257 dozen of her famous Swirls and Bars, 355 dozen Apricot Unbeatables, 28 dozen Maple Brown Sugar Shortbreads and 145 dozen Christmas Mice, her humorous mouse-shaped shortbreads adorned with red licorice tails and black licorice whiskers topped off with peanut ears.

In 1993, she baked 47 different varieties of cookies and sent several dozen batches to the troops serving in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

In 1998, she set a personal-best record when she baked 1,589 dozen cookies.

Family members suggest that baking might have been her way to deal with her loneliness as a widow, but that she also derived a certain enjoyment out of the task.

"She was the kind of person to get pleasure out of challenging herself," said Brian O'Donoghue, her son who trekked with the bootie-fitted huskies through Alaska.

The yearly ritual would start around Thanksgiving with trips to local grocery stores to buy several 15-pound bags of sugar, 100 dozen eggs and more than 150 pounds of flour. One year she drove to the Barcelona Nut Co. in Baltimore to buy 67 pounds of nuts and dried fruit, including almonds, apricots, macadamia nuts, peanuts and raisins.

She would make and freeze balls of cookie dough and wait for the winter temperatures to set in. Then she would spend night after night baking cookies, using her back yard as a sort of freezer to chill the dough. After the cookies were done she would set hot trays atop bushes to cool.

She could bake as many as 16 cookie sheets at a time.

Her assembly-line-like operation became second nature, and she could make her cookies without checking recipes or ingredients. "It's like sewing, where once a person learns to sew, they can sew without a pattern," she told Potomac Life Magazine in 1990.

Mrs. O'Donoghue was generous with her cookies. She would buy more than 250 clear plastic salad bar containers, fill them with cookies and give them to family members, her mailman, the bagger at the old A&P grocery store, her mechanic, school teachers and bus drivers. She also brought them to her husband's law firm, O'Donoghue and O'Donoghue, in the District.

One year, when she spent 19 months on a federal grand jury in Baltimore, cookie recipients included fellow jurors as well as court reporters and lawyers.

It always amused her to include her signature mouse on the top of each container, as if it were going to eat all the other cookies.

"Whatever she did, she injected a bit of a sense of humor in it as well," said her sister, Margo Hinrichs.

This was a trait she carried with her after death. A small cookie tin that she picked out, which includes a picture design of a marching drum and sticks, holds her ashes.

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