Behind the scenes at Shelia Davis' cookie exchange

BY December 21, 2011

In case you’re not proficient in Christmas cookie exchange trivia, it might surprise you to learn that the first cookie exchange was not, in fact, something suggested by the fourth wise man (he brought Starbuck’s gift cards). It’s actually a relatively recent phenomenon made famous by the Wellesley (Mass.) Cookie Exchange, which began in 1971 (although the practice was mention by Betty Crocker a decade earlier). But when history looks back on this wonderful tradition, it will realize it didn’t reach its pinnacle until Naples’ own Shelia Davis turned up the heat.

Davis, for those of you unfamiliar, is a lovely woman with high standards and spectacular mascara. And each year she invites a group of locals to take part in one of two holiday cookie exchanges (one to benefit the Community School of Naples and the other the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples) she hosts at her lovely and expansive Mediterra home. Being invited is an honor in and of itself, but attending is not for the faint of heart. Valet parking should have been a clue to the uninitiated. The only way this writer could have made a splash was if he had baked a life-sized baby Jesus sugar cookie that wore a sash reading  “Go Big or Go Home” in a combination of Grenache and pecan paste. And I still would have fallen short if I failed to consider presentation.

The invitations asked that the holiday cookies be “creatively packaged,” which, in Naples, means everything from festive boxes featuring stuffed snowmen to gilded trays featuring Christmas ornaments wrapped in iridescent cellophane to our favorite, which included splits of champagne—because alcohol makes the holidays better. There was even a cupcake-shaped container filled with mini cupcakes from Grace and Shelly’s Cupcakes. (Store bought does not violate the spirit of the thing if the person who brought them is, you know, Shelly Stayer, co-owner of Grace and Shelly’s. They’re technically homemade from her.)

With holiday classics playing on a player baby grand piano in the living room, guests mingled, sipped champagne and sampled hors d’oeuvres while ogling the extravagant display before them. The dining room table—itself capable of seating a small army—was overwhelmed by cookies and cookie-related paraphernalia. In fact, even underneath the table was cram-packed with cookies—as were the chairs and floor space near the walls. It was as if a Keebler elf had just won the lottery. There were even “Cookie Exchange” tote bags for everyone! (Not that many of the cookies could fit in them.) Amongst the cookies exchanged: artistically iced Santas, stockings and caps from the hostess; chocolate-dipped hazelnut crescents from Palm Beach’s Michele Jacobs; toffee from C’MON’s Sandi Wilson; classic molasses from former Minnesota State Senator Martha Meyers; something called Pittsburgh Crunch from Nannette Staropoli; and jam thumbprints from Valerie Ghoussaini (she’s French).

When the time came for the women to actually grab the cookies they wanted it was as if we were suddenly transported to Filene’s Basement on Bridal Day. These refined and demure women were elbow deep in Santas and cellophane and even got on their hands and knees to pull options from under the table. It all happened in a flash. In less than 5 minutes they had cleared the room of all things cookie related and there was a line of shiny Bentleys in the driveway awaiting their owners and their treasures. That’s right, Bentleys. Did we mention last year’s event raised $25,000 for the Children’s Museum? Yes, God bless us, everyone.

Others spotted in the crowd: Lollie Smith, Wanda Zaiser, Kathy Woods, Anne Marie Canning, Jane Cohen, Julie Dalton, Sandy Denny, Janice DiRomualdo, Kirsten Ferrara, Amy Cartwright, Barb Johnson, Carol Lund, Simone Lutgert, Cheryl Pifer, Ann Ratner, Kathleen Rooney, Donna Solimene, Mary Susan Clinton and Sandy Stillwell.

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