PORTLAND, Maine — Eighty-nine-year-old Eleanor Zappia kneaded the red-and-orange dough soon to become a loaf of fruit cookies, sliced like biscotti. Sophia Lambert, 9, was less than 15 feet away, as she put it, “rolling the most perfect dough in the world” to become golf-ball-sized, frost-covered and sprinkled anise cookies.
The two were among more than 50 volunteers expected at St. Peter’s Parish Hall in Portland to help churn out more than 6,000 handmade cookies Wednesday. The goodies — to be sold during the 88th annual Italian Bazaar in this Federal Street neighborhood Friday, Saturday and Sunday — represent the parish’s largest annual fundraiser.
But perhaps just as important, the massive cookie operation represents an annual magnet for this Portland community, attracting generations of women — and some men — with roots in the old Italian neighborhood.
The bazaar, commemorating the Feast of St. Rocco, is expected to draw 20,000 people over the weekend. It is described in an event announcement as “an old-fashioned neighborhood street festival which is an annual celebration of heritage, family and faith.”
Somewhere between Zappia and Lambert, both in terms of age and location, on Wednesday morning was Maria DiMillo and a 5-by-7 slip of paper, browned around the edges and brittle throughout.
DiMillo is president of the Catholic worship and fundraising group Sacred Heart Sodality. That piece of paper she carried is “at least 50,” according to 76-year St. Peter parishioner Josephine Dulac, and the cursive writing on it is the anise cookie recipe put to paper and passed down by the Ciampi sisters.
Dulac described the annual cookie operation as a rite of passage for women in the local church community — a “generational” event.
“At least 50 percent of us here grew up in this church, and now our daughters and granddaughters are here,” she said.
“We’re like one big family here,” said Nicola Libby, 16, who added sprinkles to the cookies alongside her 14-year-old sister, Isabella. “The older women teach us their ways.”
Case in point, their mother Grace Tucci-Libby, 47, stood nearby on the proverbial cookie assembly line.
“My family used to come in here and help when I was little,” Tucci-Libby said. “These girls need to know. They’re the next generation, and they’ll carry forward the tradition. They need to know how it’s done.”
When asked who taught her how to make such “perfect” spheres of dough, 9-year-old Lambert replied, “my mom.” The response attracted a satisfied nod from a woman across the table who, as it turned out, was her mother, Dominique Lambert.
“Count to 10, roll them like you’re making a ball in art class,” the younger Lambert explained. “But I must say, it’s a rather sticky operation.”
Maryann DiSanto, a veteran cookie roller to the girl’s left who met the newcomer just a few minutes earlier, warmly suggested another splash of flour to help with the sticky dough.
A new relationship forged, and like so many others around the room, will be renewed at least annually from here on out.
How many new cookie makers like Lambert has DiSanto helped? How many years has she been coming back for this tradition?
She couldn’t count.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” DiSanto laughed.