There's always laughter, tears and lots of cookies when Judy Burk and her relatives get together for their annual Christmas cookie-baking bash.
It's an all-day affair, and then some, with cousins, children and even grandchildren getting together to make a cookie Judy Burk, 58, says has been in her family for generations.
And while the cookies are the end result of these marathon sessions - the latest took place Saturday at her uncle's house - the memories and good feelings generated at these events last much longer than the trays and trays of sweet confections that are produced.
"We have a good old time," said Burk, who works as a home health aide. "We all get there around 9 a.m. We break for lunch. We have wine and subs, and we carry on until we are out of dough. The whole thing usually lasts until 3 or 4 in the afternoon."
Growing up on East Avenue in Vineland, Burk was always close to her extended Italian family.
Her dad, Dante Manaresi, was a hairdresser in Vineland, while her mom, Sue, worked in a local factory that produced paper headrest covers for dentist chairs.
Burk's grandfather lived in a house behind hers. She could get to her cousins' house by walking through their adjoining backyards.
"I didn't necessarily celebrate a lot of holidays with my cousins, but during the summers we were always outside," she said. "We would put on little plays for the neighborhood. I remember me and my cousins Ginger, Beanie and Collette singing 'When the Saints Come Marching In.'"
Back then, the holiday cookie-making was a family affair, with Burk and her sister, Patty, helping their mother and her cousins helping their mother.
"It was just our family, so it wasn't chaotic, but we looked forward to it every year," she said.
"We all had special jobs when it came to making the cookies. As a child my job was eating the raw dough," Burk recalled. Sometimes old habits die hard, and Burk is still known to sample the dough before it enters the oven.
"I catch hell for it now when I do that with everybody around," she said with a laugh.
Burk grew up and married her husband, Fred, who is a planner at Stockton. The pair settled in Mays Landing and over the years, Burk got away from the holiday cookie-baking tradition.
But about a decade ago, Burk was invited to help her cousins, who maintained the tradition, gathering together on a December weekend at the house of Uncle Nick DeBello, 91, for an exercise in group baking.
Everybody still has their own jobs, and the participants are broken down into several work groups, said DeBello's son, also Nick, 64.
"There could be up to 20 people that are there," said the younger DeBello, who works as vice president of quality management systems for Wheaton Industries. "It's a lot of fun. You have music playing. You have one group that is rolling the dough, making the bows, another group is in the kitchen deep frying these things and another group is in the dining room putting them on trays, putting powdered sugar on them."
The event is usually coordinated by Burk's cousin, Mary Ann "Beanie" Bell, 60, of Pitman, who has apparently been a foodie from the get-go. Her father gave her the nickname because of her habit of eating beans from the family garden.
For Bell, the cookie baking is a way of keeping in touch with her past.
"This cookies baking thing has gone on all my life. It is something my mother carried on from her mother. Her sisters would get together to bake," she said.
The cookie making is so important to the family, that even December weather can't cancel a baking session.
"You want to talk about the U.S. mail - neither rain nor snow is going to stop us," said DeBello. In 2009, when a blizzard hit the area on cookie-making day, DeBello and some of the boys in the family got together and cleared out his father's driveway while one of the women went and picked everyone up in her Hummer.
"No one else was out travelling, but we all did," he said.
All that work does bring rewards. Once the baking is done "we go our merry way with our big trays of cookies," Burk said.
She gives some cookies to a cousin who is in an assisted-living facility. Other cookies go to friends.
"It's a way of saying 'Merry Christmas! Get fat!,'" she said.
Fred Burk is a fan of the cookies, too, so his wife makes sure to save at least a few for him.
"I do save some, they are usually gone by the first of the year," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•6 large eggs
•3 tablespoons of melted shortening
•1 tablespoon vanilla extract
•Pinch of salt
•3 tablespoons sugar
•4 to 5 cups flour (hold out 5th cup, add as needed when kneading)
•1 tablespoon baking powder
Mix all of the ingredients in mixer, holding out 1 cup of flour and adding as needed. Let dough rest.
Cut a piece of dough and roll out thin. Cut in strips approximately 6 inches long by 1-inch wide with pastry wheel. Make a loose tie so it looks like a bow. Deep fry in oil, to a golden brown or when oil stops sizzling. Cool on paper towels. When cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.