PORTLAND – Lucille Chaisson took a break from making cookie dough at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and pointed out the open parish hall door to the stately brick house where she was born 73 years ago.
“My dad served Mass at this church every morning for 50 years, and my mother worked in the rectory,” Chaisson said. “She was the cook in the rectory. Our roots go way, way back.”
As a child, Chaisson would come to the annual St. Peter’s Italian Bazaar with her grandmother, whose job was to cut all the pizza by hand. “It was a special occasion,” she said. “My mother would get me all dressed up.”
The 88th annual bazaar will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. More than 20,000 people are expected to attend the festival at the corner of Federal and India streets, right in the heart of Portland’s historically Italian immigrant neighborhood.
Outside the 102-year-old church on Wednesday, workers were already hanging red, green and white flagging, the colors of the Italian flag. The smell of anise wafted from the parish hall, where an army of about 50 workers baked thousands of Italian anise cookies from scratch.
Their general was Josephine Dulac, a 76-year-old retired first-grade teacher – who better to keep the troops in line? – wearing a white apron, blue gloves and a navy baseball cap.
“We have people from 12 years old to 92 years old that work the cookie bake,” she said.
The official estimate from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is that the group makes “nearly 6,000” cookies each year, but Dulac said she’s actually not sure because “we lose track. We’re not ever sure of the final number.”
Dulac does know that they use 60 dozen eggs, and she knows how many cookies six eggs will make. A few minutes with the invoice from Micucci’s grocery store (of course) and a calculator reveal that the total figure is more like 7,200 cookies.
They are all the same basic cookie, made two different ways with six simple ingredients purchased in huge quantities. In addition to the 60 dozen eggs, the bakers go through 300 pounds of flour, 300 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of baking powder, six gallons of vegetable oil and 24 half-ounce bottles of anise oil.
The baking goes on all day, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. The volunteers make basic drop cookies with white frosting (made with 300 pounds of confectioners’ sugar) and rainbow jimmies (10 pounds’ worth), as well as loaf-style cookies that are cut after they are baked and include cherries (16 pounds’ worth) and walnuts (125 pounds), as well as the frosting and sprinkles.
Each table in the parish hall has a different function. There are mixers making the dough, shapers who form the cookies and bakers in the kitchen. There are cooling tables, frosting and sprinkling tables, and packaging tables where the cookies will be readied for sale. This year, they will go for $4 for six cookies, a $1 price increase over last year.
In the steamy kitchen, huge trays of cookies were going into and out of large pizza ovens.
“This is by far the toughest job, in front of those ovens,” said Dulac, whose daughter, niece, daughter-in-law and granddaughter also were helping out.
Sam Marcisso, who has been a part of the bazaar preparations for more than 40 years and was manning the ovens, says family is the whole point of the festival.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said, not breaking a sweat. “Getting the family all together. Family is community. When we originally started this, everybody lived in this neighborhood. Now they’re spread out all over, but they still come back.”
Marcisso was showing the ropes to the next generation, including Angelo Magno, 16.
“I’ve gone to church here my whole life, but this is my first year doing the cookies,” Magno said. “My dad got us into it.”
Magno’s sister, 17-year-old Francesca, toiled out in the parish hall, dipping the golf ball-sized drop cookies into the frosting with a twist of her wrist. (Misshapen cookies end up on a plate over by the coffee, where the volunteers can snack on them.)
The teenager said she would “definitely” be back next year.
“Somebody’s got to keep up tradition, you know?” she said. “And I want to learn how to make them. I make biscotti and pizzelles at home, but we don’t make these.”
Across the table from Magno, 14-year-old Daniella Fornaro sprinkled multicolored jimmies on each cookie after Magno frosted it. Fornaro has volunteered to make cookies for three years now, and says, with a wide smile, that she does it because “I love making cookies.”
And what does the “cookie general” get out of it?
“Sheer enjoyment,” Dulac said. Then she laughed. “And aches and pains.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: