Thin Cookies, Big Heart
Words by Isaac Ray Norris
Photos by Liz Nemeth
As I am shown to my room at the Graylyn Estate, a wonderful boutique hotel shrouded in greenery and blooming flowers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the concierge makes sure everything is just right. The room is pale yellow, with a four poster bed and an antique lock and key on the door. The bed is facing the door, with the headboard against the windows, which overlook a small courtyard with a koi fish pond—I can hear the cherub fountain bubbling. The room is small, but unique and homey. After a short conversation, I am left to myself and encouraged to explore the estate. But first, I notice a bag full of goodies on the bed.
I open the bag to find Texas Pete hot sauce, some information about Winston-Salem, an energy drink, and three packs of the thinnest cookies I’ve ever seen. The label reads “Mrs. Hanes’ Handmade Moravian Cookies.” I immediately rip the packaging open to find three flavors: lemon, ginger, and sugar. I try the lemon flavored cookie first, perfect for the summer heat, and am surprised when the thin delectable melts in my mouth—a whisper of the sweetest lemon cookie I’ve ever had.
Over the course of my weekend at Graylyn, I reach for the cookies to munch on as often as I can. I can’t put them down! Each morning I place a sugar cookie into my coffee as a sweet send off for the last drop. In the evenings, when I arrive back to my room, I take the ginger cookies—the heartier of the three—and make ice cream sandwiches in the ice cream room on my floor. Yes, there’s a room dedicated to ice cream.
Eventually, I get curious about who’s behind these cookies. I discover that the actual Mrs. Hanes, Evva, is alive and still baking cookies herself—by hand—in the smaller town of Clemmons, just a short drive from Winston-Salem.
On a tiny country road there sits an inconspicuous, pale yellow building with the tiniest of signs, which reads: “Mrs. Hanes’ Handmade Moravian Cookies.” I’ve found it. The building looks like any old building you see on these kinds of roads: metal siding, a small parking lot, lined in shrubs. What’s important is on the inside. In this building, women provide for their families, and one family in particular—the Hanes family—provides cookies to hundreds of thousands.
You’re probably thinking “But what makes a cookie Moravian?” To which the answer is a short history lesson. I know, history isn’t something most enjoy, but to understand the origin of these cookies, one needs to know the origins of the Moravians.
The Moravian Church is an oft-forgotten part of Southern history. According to Moravian Church records, the Moravians originated in Bohemia and Moravia, what is now present-day Czech Republic. The Moravian Church, or Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren) was officially organized in 1457 after years of reformation from Roman Catholicism—60 years before Martin Luther and a century before the establishment of the Anglican Church.
Bishop Augustus Spangenberg led a party to survey a 100,000-acre tract of land in North Carolina, which came to be known as Wachau after an Austrian estate of Count Zinzendorf. The name, later anglicized to Wachovia, became the center of growth for the church in that region. Bethabara, Bethania, and Salem (now Winston-Salem) were the first Moravian settlements in North Carolina.
But the truly amazing and incredible part of Moravian life was their practice of record keeping. The Moravians kept, and still keep, records of almost every aspect of their daily life. There are community journals—books that detail families, marriages, jobs, chores, seasons, agricultural decisions, how they built their buildings, when they built their buildings, why they built them where they built them, what they ate, how they ate, why they ate, when they ate, spiritual practices—where every single detail of daily life was recorded. Ledgers upon ledgers of notes, documents, dimensions, and recipes. Every. Single. Detail.
And that’s how Mrs. Evva Hanes has become a seventh generation Moravian cookie maker. That’s right—seventh generation. She uses the original recipe for the cookies, an heirloom recipe passed down for generations.
“I grew up with my mother making the cookies. We were farmers, so she made the cookies to supplement our income,” Mrs. Evva Hanes told me. “As I grew up, I learned how to make the cookies. I never rolled them out, but when my mother’s health begin to fail, I started rolling. I took the business to my home where we built a special bakery to create them.”
“By word of mouth the business grew, and the reputation of our unique, thin, high-quality cookies has spread around the world. We ship to all 50 states and to over 30 foreign countries.”
Evva told me that as her business grew, so did her family. As she was beginning to have children, she needed help. “Eventually, we wanted to move it out of the house, so we built our first building. We gradually started hiring about one or two people each year, and it kept growing.”
Mona, Evva’s daughter and an eighth generation cookie maker, told me that they employ 43 full-time employees—the majority of whom are women—some of whom have been with the company for almost 30 years. “I’m very proud that we have been able to maintain the tradition of making the cookies by hand. I like being unique, one of a kind, and I like amazing people with our product and our practices.”
While visiting the cookie factory, I was given the chance to test out my own baking skills. I was handed plastic gloves and a cookie mold, and then some sugar cookie dough. Cutting these cookies from their molds is all about the movement of your wrist. If you don’t flick it in the right way, the cookie will fold over itself and you have to start over. Using the mold—heart-shaped—with my right hand, I pressed the mold into the dough, lifted it up, and it immediately fell onto itself. My first attempts ended in failure, and eventually I gave up trying.
As I watched an employee, a master cookie cutter, I was amazed at how quickly and efficiently she was able to create the cookies. In just a few seconds, she had cut a handful of cookies and had placed them on a baking sheet.
The tradition of Mrs. Hanes' Handmade Moravian Cookies is strong, and still going. After Mona, the ninth generation of cookie makers is “waiting on the sidelines,” as Evva likes to say.
“Our cookies are an artform. It’s a skill that has to be learned in a specific way, after hours of practice. I like people realizing that we are more concerned with quality and taste over making a profit.”