When Reeah Parker's son joined the Marines in 2004 -- meaning he'd eventually be sent to Iraq -- she turned to her sister and asked, "How will I survive this?"
"You'll bake your way through it," Claire Goebeler of Bowie told her.
It's a piece of advice many families with relatives in the military follow, especially now as the holidays approach. As Parker puts it, "It's not just cookies you're sending -- it's the taste, the smells, the memories of home."
For most troops stationed abroad, a care package takes two to three weeks to arrive -- which means it's time to get serious about baking, packing and sending.
At the Parker household in Germantown, it's called Cookie Day, and on a recent Saturday, Parker and her four sisters divvied up the work with military-like precision.
Someone kept the coffeepot going. There was food to nibble on. Ebby, the black cat, wove in and out between everyone's legs. And every 10 minutes or so, the oven door opened and another sheet of cookies was taken out and a fresh one put in.
The sisters' to-do list was long: soft molasses spice cookies, the ever-popular chocolate chip, tangy coconut-lime cutouts, peanut butter-fudge sandwich cookies, sturdy almond sables, and oatmeal-Rice Krispie cookies.
One sister, Kathryn Newman of Laurel, and her 12-year-old daughter Annie rolled balls of molasses spice dough in sugar. Another sister, Jeanne Parker of Urbana, carefully portioned out chocolate chip cookie dough. Goebeler kept an eye on the almond sables baking on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Meanwhile, Marie Sherrett of Upper Marlboro packed up the peanut butter sandwich cookies.
"Chocolate isn't good for sending when it's hot, but now that it's winter, it's okay," she said.
The sisters made dozens of cookies for Parker's only child, Lance Cpl. Sebastian Parker-Vaughan, 22, who was visiting from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq in July. Until recently, cookies were also sent to Sherrett's son, Daniel, who last month completed his four-year tour with the Navy.
Watching his aunts and mother as they baked, Sherrett, 22, said getting homemade cookies was a huge treat.
"Guys would get a box from Amazon, and it's like no big deal. But people really start swarming around you when they see a box with a handwritten label and it's obviously food from home."
Sherrett, who worked as a cook aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, said the ship provided chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies to the troops. "But they were from a mix. Homemade is so much better," he said.
Parker agrees. She and her sisters make all the cookies from scratch from both old and new recipes. The molasses cookies, for example, come from a recipe Goebeler remembers their mother baking when the five sisters were children. The coconut-lime cutouts are something new Parker tried this summer. Newman likes the traditional oatmeal cookie recipe on the Quaker Oats box, "except we substitute Rice Krispies for the raisins because we don't like raisins."
Baking for sons in the military is a family tradition. Parker remembers her mother baking for her brother when he served in Vietnam. "She used popcorn to fill the box, but we use bubble wrap," she said.
Parker and her sisters have learned how to ensure that their care packages arrive intact. "Early on, Marie sent Daniel a box of cookies, and by the time it arrived, there was nothing but crumbs," Parker said. "There's such great anticipation when they see a box from home, and you hate to disappoint them. We learned how to pack [the cookies] so even if the box gets crunched, the cookies are protected."
The secret, she said, is to use plastic containers to hold the cookies snugly. The sisters have used so many 64-ounce Glad containers, Marie Sherrett said, that the manufacturer sent them discount coupons.
Wax paper is put between each layer of cookies, "and only one kind of cookie per container so the flavors don't mix," Parker advised.
The plastic containers are then placed in a sturdy cardboard box filled with bubble wrap. "The boys have received boxes that look like they've been crushed, but the cookies inside were in perfect condition," Sherrett said.
And what does Parker's son think of getting the baked treats? Parker-Vaughan tells the story of when he was waiting to ship out to Djibouti, Africa.
The troops had been told to pack the military's meals-ready-to-eat for the flight, "but I had all these cookies from home. There wasn't enough room for both, so I threw out the MREs and filled my backpack with cookies," he said. "My buddies and I ate cookies for hours. The sugar high really kept us going."
1. Pack cookies of similar kinds in lightweight, disposable plastic containers.
2. Pack them snugly between layers of folded wax paper.
3. Seal tightly.
4. Place the containers in a sturdy cardboard box with a layer of bubble wrap or crushed newspaper as insulation.