Cooked in Aspen, consumed worldwide
Shan Stuart is anxiously awaiting word on whether he’s made it into Kabul, Afghanistan. He can add Tibet and Bhutan to his lengthy list of exotic locations, as soon as he finds out precisely where in those countries he made his mark. And next week, Stuart expects to have his presence known at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, in New York’s Madison Square Garden.Physically speaking, Stuart himself hasn’t traveled much. Pointing out on a map all the foreign soil he has touched, his finger wanders barely centimeters outside U.S. territory. There was the one time he crossed into a Mexican border town; on another occasion, he made it just over the northern boundary, into Ontario, Canada. That’s the extent of his foreign journeys.But oh, the places you can go with a good chocolate chip cookie recipe.Stuart, an Aspenite who has tinkered with his recipe for some 20 years, spanning hundreds of batches, makes an exceptional cookie. And since he gives bags of his goods to world travelers, those cookies have amazing stories to tell.Stuart’s cookies have been eaten on the highest peaks on two continents, and are aiming for Everest this spring. The baked goods have been to McMurdo Sound in Antarctica and above the Arctic Circle in Lapland. They have been stolen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square; they staved off photographer David Hiser’s starvation in Borneo. The cookies fed the Harvard Girls Ice Hockey Team at the 2003 National Championships in Duluth, and stirred up some jealousy among passengers on a 1992 Air China flight. They have been heli-skiing in Greenland and river rafting on the Usumacinta River that separates Mexico from Guatemala.”The cookies have been a lot of places I’d like to go,” said Stuart. “They have been down the Grand Canyon way more times than I have. And before I was.”‘Incredible human being’Since he sent a batch of standard-issue Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies to a friend who had moved to Europe some two decades ago, Stuart has compiled a roster of itinerant friends. Those people, mostly from the Roaring Fork Valley, can expect Stuart to appear, batch of cookies in hand, on the eve of their adventures. The travelers are expected to do nothing more than bring the cookies, enjoy them, and share them with whomever they encounter down the road, up the river or on top of the mountain.
Ask those people about Stuart and, of course, the topic of cookies comes up immediately. The cookies, however, are not what make the most lasting impact. What’s behind the cookies – the gesture of pure generosity, a desire to share and create a bit of unexpected joy – is the essential part of the experience. For Shan, it is about the cookies; for the cookie recipients, who tote them to the far reaches of the world and share them with strangers from Israel to Iceland, it is more about Shan.”Shan’s an incredible human being,” said Tony Mazza, who has brought the goodies on an estimated 75 trips, including journeys to Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand, Sweden and Tokyo. Mazza, a local commercial property owner, doesn’t speak to the media but he broke his policy to offer his view on Stuart: “This is an incredibly generous gesture from someone who is very kind and considerate. It’s an indication of his type of personality – very giving, very considerate, very caring.”Dorothy Thau, who has brought the cookies to Morocco, France, Florida and, on tour with John Denver, to China, called Stuart “an unusual person, and a joyful person.” David Hiser, who survived on the cookies rather than partake of the local choices of monkey’s arm or cooked tree parts while doing a story in Borneo, said Stuart was a most valued employee at Photographers Aspen in the early 1990s: “It was like his mind was a vast database for our business.” And Cathy Crum, who munched the cookies while roller-blading around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, noted how Stuart’s selflessness extends beyond his baking.”Whenever he goes on an interesting journey – to a fourteener or down a river – he’ll bring home an interesting rock or fossil for me,” said Crum. “It’s extra weight, but he puts it in his backpack and brings it to me. I have a place in my garden for the things he’s brought. You don’t meet people who have that kind of compassion, sensitivity and generosity.”The Crums, like many of the cookie recipients, are friends of Stuart’s from his earliest days in Aspen. Stuart met the Crums at Windstar, the environmental center founded by John Denver, which first drew Stuart to the valley. And the Crums, also like many cookie travelers, are multi-generational participants. Cathy and her husband Tom have lugged Stuart’s cookies to Bali; London; and St. Andrews, Scotland. Daughter Ali has had the cookies at Cambridge, Mass., where she attended Harvard, and Duluth, Minn., where her Harvard ice hockey teammates filled up on cookies before taking second place in the national championships.”And this from a guy who barely has enough money to put a shirt on his back,” concluded Crum.Older than his years
Stuart – who declines to give his age, says he is older than he looks, and is probably in his mid-40s – has had various jobs in his 23 years in Aspen. He first worked for the Unicorn Balloon Company, which seems to have left a big impression. It was there he worked with pilot John Wembley, whose love of chocolate chip cookies first spurred Stuart’s interest in the baked goods. Stuart still volunteers regularly at the Snowmass Balloon Festival.Working at Photographers Aspen in the early ’90s, Stuart expanded the traveling aspect of his baking, loading up the corps of peripatetic photographers with cookies as they took off on assignment. At the Wheeler Opera House, he worked in the box office, on the stage crew and doing security.At the defunct Ozzie’s shoe store, Stuart handled shipping, receiving and stocking. One day, on the job at Ozzie’s, he had an accident. Stuart, who can be shy and protective of his privacy, wouldn’t go far into the story but said a worker’s compensation claim ended unsatisfactorily for him. He doesn’t have a job currently, though he is known to pet- and house-sit for some clients, who tend to sing his praises.The Ozzie’s injury was not the first of Stuart’s physical problems. At Michigan State, a few hundred miles south of his native Iron County, in northern Michigan, he started out as a pre-med student. But the experience of dealing with his own, unspecified medical problems turned him off to the practice.”I saw all the bad sides of medicine. I decided that was not where I was going to go,” said Stuart, who instead got a degree in Family Consumer Resources, and thought of doing consumer advocacy work.’Best cookies I’ve ever had’Stuart has never put that degree to use. But he has taken a professional’s approach to his cookies, constantly experimenting with ingredients and methods to make a better product.The first recipe came right off the back of the cookie-mix box. Since then, the cookies have gone from standard to sensational. When I got my own taste of cookie-sharing, passing them around town and hauling a batch up to Highland Bowl, I got more than one wide-eyed, sincere look and “These are the best cookies I’ve ever had” comment. (Stuart insisted if I was going to write about the cookies, I had to experience the cookies.)The first big leap came when Stuart read a Consumer Reports piece about making a good chocolate chip cookie. It opened his eyes to the fact that he could vary ingredients. He has since tried “every flour you could buy in this town,” before settling on a high-altitude flour, the brand name of which he can’t remember. After testing various butters, he found not only that butter was key to producing the proper texture and consistency, but also that one butter – Land ‘o Lakes, lightly salted, but definitely not the “lite” variety – beat the others. Experimenting with sweeteners, he happened upon his secret ingredient, which he intends to keep a secret. Ghirardelli chocolate chips and Enstrom’s toffee are not cheap, but Stuart won’t accept substitutes.
Chocolate chip cookies have led to oatmeal raisin and the outstanding, new green mint chip with walnuts, and even banana nut muffins. Those most in the know rave about a twisted bread spiced with cardamom, a recipe Stuart grew up with.”I’m making a cookie that keeps getting better,” said Stuart, who will vary his baking – flat and crunchy, soft and chewy, nuts or no nuts – based on his knowledge of individual tastes. Good vibes through cookiesAs meticulous and enthusiastic as he’s been about his baking, Stuart doesn’t see his culinary horizons expanding much. “I hate to cook. Hate to cook,” he said. “But there’s something about cookies. It’s because I know they’re going to make people happy.”It may be that creating those good vibes through cookies is a way of replacing past hardships with something joyful and selfless. Cookies certainly don’t take Stuart any closer to financial well-being; only twice, most recently when he was hired to bake a backstage batch for David Bromberg’s concert last month at the Wheeler Opera House, has Stuart accepted money for his goods. From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, cookies are a money pit. It is sometimes a challenge even to buy the ingredients for his next round of cookies.Though he keeps a notebook of where his cookies have gone, and with whom – some 500 entries so far – Stuart isn’t in it for the journalizing. He can lag months behind in the book, and date entry can seem like a chore. The cookies aren’t intended as a stand-in for the tentative desires of a nervous traveler. “I would like to be the one traveling instead of my cookies,” said Stuart, who has made several float trips through the Grand Canyon and took his cookies on their first ascent of Capitol Peak. The project is clearly not a grab for attention or publicity; Stuart had to be persuaded to be interviewed for this story and declined to be photographed for it. He has no signs of the obsessiveness one might associate with such a hobby; he can go months without handing out cookies. He does collect chocolate chip cookie paraphernalia, but it’s not much of a collection.”It’s always been, I find out a friend is going somewhere and I ask if they want to take cookies,” said Stuart, who charts the cookie escapades on a map on his kitchen wall. “It’s not like I’m asking, ‘Are you going somewhere? Are you going somewhere?’ But a lot of my friends know I make cookies, and I have a lot of friends who travel a lot.”Which leaves only the spiritual reasons – that it makes people feel good to eat cookies, to take them around the world, to savor memories of sharing them. Dorothy Thau recalls the time when she handed out cookies to passengers on a flight to China. At first, she approached only the English-speaking fliers, figuring the offer would not be easy to translate.”The Chinese people on the plane got so jealous,” she said. “Finally, we got it; they wanted to share the cookies. Then they were laughing and smiling.”
“I think the biggest thing is the joy people have of getting something like that,” said Stuart. “The times when people share the stories of giving the cookies, those are happy stories. They’re nice memories. Cathy Crum picked the ideal name: The Goodwill cookies.”And they’re unique stories. How many times are my cookies going to get stolen in Tiananmen Square? And I don’t expect them to get on top of Acancagua or Kilimanjaro again.”‘He loves to do it. Just loves it.’Stuart is waiting to hear if he can mark Kabul on his map. Cherie Oates, who has been taking the cookies around the world (Italy, Switzerland, Moab) sent a batch to her son Jeremie, a soldier in the Army Special Forces who has just been relocated from Germany to Afghanistan.Stuart was bringing cookies to Oates, who was heading into the backcountry to the McNamara Hut two weeks ago. When he heard about Jeremie’s transfer, he headed right back to the kitchen.”He brewed them up that night and brought them back the next morning,” said Oates. “He loves to do it. Just loves it. He gets so excited about it. I don’t think he expects anything in return. He probably just expects to create some good will.”Whenever I think of Shan, whenever I get a package from him, I get such a warm feeling.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com