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Friday, December 21, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cookie exchange: It's a guy thing

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If there were a sign on the door, it would read "No Gurlz Allowed."

The men do it for the laughs more than anything else — and for the sweet rewards they take home.

Yesterday male staffers at Arbor Heights Elementary School in Seattle convened in a classroom for their fifth annual Men's Cookie Exchange.

In a field dominated by women, the handful of male faculty members get together without their female counterparts to snack and make jokes.

"It's a lark," said Robert Femiano, a first- and second-grade teacher.

Third-grade teacher Mark Ahlness started the tradition at Arbor Heights. He had done it for three years at another campus, where women always exchanged cookies and probably didn't think to ask the men if they were interested, Ahlness said.

But interested he was.

"It's just a fun thing to do," said Ahlness. "There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor that goes along with this."

Every man bakes a dozen cookies for each of the other guys in the group. They dress up the presentations with colored plates, festive wrapping and bows. Ready-to-bake cookies are not allowed, spouses and significant others cannot help, and the rules decree, "Don't skimp on ingredients — use butter for goodness sake!"

"It's always fun to watch the wives," said Keith Leifsen, a custodian at the school, laughing about his wife observing him baking. "She'd watch every step I made. You could see that anticipation."

Leifsen's cookie batter included seven Heath candy bars and a half-pound Hershey bar.

Though the baking kept many of the guys up late Wednesday night, they reported few problems getting the recipes to work, though Femiano said he had to whip up another batch after the first didn't turn out right. He offered this advice: "Don't try a new a batch the night before."

The exchange's Web site, www.halcyon.com/arborhts/pics/cookies, has reached other schools, which have started all-male cookie exchanges.

Thom Garrard, a librarian at Discovery Elementary School in Mukilteo, started a tradition in 1999 when he was a teacher at Lake Stickney Elementary in the same district.

Garrard said he tried to organize other events for the minority of male teachers in elementary schools but didn't succeed.

His recruitment note for last year's exchange invited men to "cream some butter with our bare hands" and "beat some eggs within an inch of their lives."

There are now three male staff members out of 40 staffers at Lake Stickney and seven out of 50 at Discovery.

"Any way that I can let other guys know that I support them being here in schools is important," Garrard said.

Three of the Discovery teachers held their first exchange this week.

On the menu at Arbor Heights were two kinds of shortbread cookies, oatmeal Heath cookies, chocolate balls and toffee squares — a recipe Ahlness borrowed from his childhood.

They talk it up for weeks prior, but the actual morning ceremony takes just a few minutes — long enough to listen to some Bruce Springsteen or Jethro Tull, swap a few stories about baking woes and get ready to start the school day.

Ahlness said the men talked of making the event a competition but decided against it.

Last week, Garrard described a recipe he was fond of: butter-cookie sandwiches dusted with sugar and frosting, decorated with a wreath around the rim.

"I'll probably make those this year," he said. "Just to show what the guys can do."

Aydrea Walden can be reached at 206-464-2342 or awalden@seattletimes.com.

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